A Press in Denial

by Vergel O. Santos

Some media have decided to simply watch from the sidelines, with a few even chiming in, on some pretext of letting the rule of law run its course, perhaps hoping Duterte would continue to favor them with their ration of freedom.

HAVING GROWN smug in a setting where free expression is a deal that cannot be abridged, the Philippine news media did not see a Rodrigo Duterte coming. If they did, they could only have denied it and not learned the lesson of 1972, when Ferdinand Marcos, in spite of his express warnings, surprised the nation with martial law, and proceeded to rule as a dictator for 14 years.

With Marcos, journalists didn’t have much of a chance; they woke up one morning their freedom killed and their media shut down, giving them no choice but to operate underground or, if willing and cleared for it, to work for the state media. With Duterte, the situation is deceptively fluid, although very likely, for the news media in particular, to turn for the worse. That’s why they feel wary and unsettled.

Duterte’s election as president was itself a surprise. His predecessor having performed well — leading the nation to its highest average economic growth, reducing poverty markedly, and inspiring a widespread sense of security against crime — a successor with a high-handed and altogether opposite predisposition would not have seemed a logical electoral choice.

The post-election analysis has revealed a factor that was, again, overlooked or denied yet may have played a strong part in helping Duterte sneak by undetected. It is the same factor that now helps sustain his popularity and poses a grave challenge to the professional media for dominance.

That X Factor is social media, the modern-day, game-changing phenomenon that Duterte strategists have exploited to, first, engender a sense of dissatisfaction among a people already vulnerable in their privations and, then, sell them the idea of a shortcut to salvation through an authoritarian leadership. It’s a strategy perfectly suited to Duterte’s “antisocial narcissistic personality,” and it is backed by a ridiculous majority in Congress — more than 90 percent in the House of Representatives and around 80 in the Senate.

Indeed, with a political force so potent under a president who, by virtue of his disorder — one professionally diagnosed and a matter of public record — simply can’t help brandishing his power arrogantly and using it indiscriminately, who will not be intimidated? A number of editors and ground practitioners admit they are. Being the designated institutional spoiler in a democracy, the news media are a natural chief target for a leader of despotic bent.

The nation’s two leading national newspapers betrayed their apprehension when they accommodated two of Duterte’s lieutenants as columnists, crossing the ethical line that separates the news media from the very subject of their watchdogging. The Philippine Star has Mocha Uson, assistant communications secretary. For a while, the Philippine Daily Inquirer had Uson’s boss, Martin Andanar, but has dropped him.

Uson also runs an army of bloggers and trolls from whose vulgar and vicious attacks no Duterte dissenter escapes. Having been accredited by Communications Secretary Andanar, as only “deserving reward for helping President Duterte get elected,” they may have been promoted to the stature of journalist only nominally, but they have been further emboldened to exercise their appropriated and bogus sense of press freedom.

At a Senate hearing on a proposal to regulate “false news,” which her troops are precisely accused of propagating, Uson exposed herself decidedly in her reply to the question why they don’t observe such basic sense of fairness as seeking out the opposite side: “But we are bloggers . . . not journalists.”

Some measure of benignity is attached to the comparatively few killings — four — among journalists in the first year and a half of Duterte’s six-year watch. The other comparative numbers are 31 in Benigno Aquino III’s time; 83 in Gloria Arroyo’s, of which 32 were among the 58 people killed in a massacre in 2009 in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao; six in Joseph Estrada’s, before he was impeached on the third year of his term and replaced by his vice-president, Arroyo; 11 in Fidel Ramos’s term; and 21 in Corazon Aquino’s.

Even so, the international organization Reporters Without Borders has rated the Philippines under Duterte as one of the five most dangerous places in the world for a journalist to be, and the most dangerous in Asia. The danger would seem to lie more with the general idea of being silenced than with murder — the idea of press freedom itself being killed, which has in fact begun to happen to three of its boldest practitioners.

Duterte himself has served public notice to the pioneer broadcast network, ABS-CBN, that its franchise, expiring in 2020, will not be renewed, as if it is for him to ration press freedom.

The Inquirer, on the other hand, is now waiting for a new owner, the tycoon Ramon Ang, a new turncoat for Duterte. Having backed a rival of Duterte’s in the elections, he has much to prove to him. At the Inquirer, he is taking over from a family who had been eased out on Duterte’s threats of belated sanctions for an old business deal that allegedly had disadvantaged the government.

But Duterte reserved his heaviest hand for Rappler, the social media site.

In his nationally televised State of the Nation Address in July, Duterte accused Rappler of violating the constitutional prohibition against foreign ownership in Philippine media. The Office of the Solicitor General promptly put the Securities and Exchange Commission onto Rappler. After five months of inquiry, during which the commission, a supposedly independent quasi-judicial institution, admitted holding consultations with the Department of Justice, the ruling came down pronouncing Rappler guilty as charged by Duterte and revoking its permit to operate.

But, the ruling being appealable, Rappler continues to operate — as bold as ever — and intends to fight the SEC “all the way up to the Supreme Court,” says Rappler founder and CEO Maria Ressa. She holds that SEC mistakenly applied the provision on “depositary receipts.” That financial instrument, she argues, citing precedents, allows a company to take investments without ceding ownership.

Right on cue, meanwhile, Uson’s bloggers and trolls have taken up the case and, with their characteristic crassness and viciousness, gone on relentless attacks against Rappler and its defenders.

Some media have decided to simply watch from the sidelines, with a few even chiming in, on some pretext of letting the rule of law run its course, perhaps hoping Duterte would continue to favor them with their ration of freedom.