Press Under Siege: Media Organizations as Targets of the State

by Jeraldine Pascual

The three media outfits singled out publicly were ABS-CBN, Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler. All three have sustained critical coverage of Duterte’s “war on drugs” and the violations of human rights.

PRESIDENT RODRIGO Duterte does not take criticism well, and definitely not from the press. Well, who does? The problem is, Duterte acts on it and quickly.

Questions about his health and wealth, his position on human rights put him on the defensive and trigger an insult, curse, or other expressions of animosity right there and then. When in a rather good mood, he answers journalists vaguely: showing annoyance, bringing up a similar example, or moving on to another subject.

But when he is really angry, the public tongue lashing is followed by direct action of some kind.

In 2017, Duterte started alleging misconduct of owners of three media companies on economic and corporate issues: foreign ownership on the part of one, tax liabilities on another, failure of contract of yet another.

The three media outfits singled out publicly were ABS-CBN, Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler. All three have sustained critical coverage of Duterte’s “war on drugs” and the violations of human rights.

Non-Renewal of Legislative Franchise

In the Philippines, commercial broadcasting stations are required by law to obtain a legislative franchise, which is granted by the Congress.      To put it bluntly, the continued operations of these stations are at the mercy of the government, the worst part of all, politicians.  (See: “Congressional Franchises as a Weapon to Control a Free Press”)

A June 2016 article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer fueled speculation on the non-renewal of the franchise of ABS-CBN, one of the country’s major networks. The report said, “Duterte and his supporters are unhappy about ABS-CBN’s attacks against him during the campaign season.” A campaign ad paid for by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, then a vice presidential candidate and outspoken Duterte critic, was a natural object of Duterte’s hate and those of his supporters.

ABS-CBN applied for renewal during the Aquino administration in 2014, six years before the license expiration in 2020. But the network clarified in a statement that “due to time constraints, ABS-CBN decided to withdraw the application with the intent of seeking renewal in the 17th Congress (coinciding with the Duterte administration).”

ABS-CBN is one of the media organizations that tracked the casualties in the drug war, producing broadcast and multimedia reports on the victims and the families they left.

Duterte started publicly attacking ABS-CBN on March 30, 2017, accusing the network and the Inquirer of slanting their reports, calling these “garbage”. He called the Lopez family of ABS-CBN and the Prieto family of the Inquirer the “oligarchs of this country.”

He went further with his attacks against ABS-CBN in his succeeding public speeches, claiming that he paid for a campaign ad during the elections but the network never aired it. He threatened to block the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN on April 27, 2017; accusing the network of “estafa” and “swindling” for their failure to air political ads he paid during his campaign.

Prior to this threat of non-renewal, ABS-CBN Chair Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III downplayed the president’s tirades: “We haven’t gone through an administration that, at one point or another, has not had some issue with the media in general and ABS-CBN in particular. So it is part and parcel of our work being a media institution.” He said the network would deal with the renewal issue “not in the public eye but privately.”

House Bill 4349 seeking the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise has been pending hearing at the committee level since November 16, 2016.

Inquirer Buyout  

After Duterte accused the Inquirer of slanting reports against him, the broadsheet responded through a statement: “Since its founding in 1985, the Inquirer has upheld the highest standards of excellence in journalism.  Even as we’ve courageously pursued the truth in our coverage, we’ve endeavored to get the administration’s side of any controversy.”

Like ABS-CBN, Inquirer also actively maintained a count of persons killed in the drug war, supporting its coverage with dramatic photo essays about the “night shift.”

Escalating his attacks, he claimed on April 5, 2017 that the Inquirer “owned” Dunkin Donuts, which, he said had tax deficiencies settled in their favor during the time of former Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) commissioner Kim Henares. Inquirer denied the claim in a single line in its report: “The Inquirer does not own Dunkin Donuts.”

Duterte has also accused Inquirer of owing the government PHP 8 billion in taxes over the Mile Long property, the subject of a court case between the government of Makati City and Sunvar Realty Development Corporation, a company owned by the Prieto family. Sunvar is accused of occupying the Mile Long property even after their lease agreement expired in 2002.

On July 17, 2017, the Prietos announced that they have been discussing the sale of their family’s majority share in the Inquirer Group to business tycoon Ramon Ang, a known supporter and campaign donor of Duterte. The family said talks of the sale began in 2014, and that the decision to divest after 25 years is a “strategic business decision.” Inquirer’s statement added: “The family is confident that Mr. Ang will uphold the Inquirer Group’s commitment to pursuing highest standards of journalism.”

The announcement of the sale did not prevent Duterte from further attacking the broadsheet. On August 2, 2017, Duterte threatened to sue the Inquirer for “economic sabotage” for their continued use of the Mile Long property.

Issue on Ownership

As Duterte’s verbal tirades against ABS-CBN and Inquirer waned, he intensified his attention on online news organization Rappler, another media organization that publishes reports critical of Duterte’s policies.

During his July 24, 2017 State of the Nation Address, Duterte claimed that Rappler is owned by Americans, accusing the news site of violating the Constitution. He repeated this allegation in the succeeding weeks.

The 1987 Constitution limits the ownership and management of mass media to Filipino citizens, and to corporations wholly-owned and managed by them.

Rappler has repeatedly denied this claim in more than one article, claiming that it is 100% Filipino-owned. On August 29, 2017, Rappler said in a statement: “All of Rappler’s corporate filings are publicly available. Like any startup digital company in the world, we are investing capital to grow. Anyone familiar with startups in Silicon Valley, Beijing, or Moscow would find this business as usual. We obtained this capital legally, selling shareholdings in the company to Filipinos, and raising capital through Philippine Depositary Receipts identical to instruments issued by leading media and telecom companies in the Philippines, aligned with the Constitution, and approved by the courts.”

These exact receipts, or PDRs, were voided on January 15, 2018 by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), who cited a provision in the PDRs issued to Omidyar Network which allowed the foreign firm to exercise some control over Rappler’s corporate affairs. SEC also revoked Rappler’s articles of incorporation.

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa said they were not given the opportunity to respond to the findings of SEC’s investigation, the initiation of which was recommended by Solicitor General Calida in December 2016. Ressa maintained that Omidyar Network only holds investments in Rappler through the PDRs, which does not give them the right to intervene in the operations of the company.

On January 29, 2018, Rappler filed a 68-page petition before the Court of Appeals, arguing that the agreement between them and Omidyar Network does not constitute control.

Journalists, bloggers and press freedom advocates gathered at the Boy Scout Circle in Quezon City on January 19, 2018. This was the first of the continuing Black Friday for Press Freedom protest action. | Photo by Lito Ocampo.

Undermining the Power of the Press

CMFR said in a May 2017 article that the President’s attacks against media owners and their respective organizations make them “easier targets as these attacks condition the public mind into viewing independent media in the most negative light, as the president had set out to do since he took office.” (See: “A Lukewarm Response to Charges, Silence from the Rest of Media”)

However, issues concerning one particular media organization are hardly reported on extensively by others. Unless the Philippine media close ranks and exercise responsibility, attacks on press freedom will continue with impunity.

Impinging on Religious Freedom

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives failed to act on the renewal of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) congressional franchise. The 25-year term granted to CBCP under Republic Act 7530 expired on August 4, 2017.

The United Catholic Action News (UCAN) reported that at least 54 radio stations under the Catholic Media Network (CMN) are affected by the non-renewal. According to UCAN, CMN is the largest broadcasting network in the country in terms of the total number of stations and transmitting power per station.

Rep. Franz Alvarez, chair of the House Committee on Legislative Franchises said the inaction was due to the large number of applications for renewal. CBCP applied for renewal in January 31, 2017, but the bill never went past the committee level.

Duterte and his allies in government have been critical of the Catholic Church, which has called out the administration’s apparent disregard for human rights — primarily the right to life — in the conduct of the war on drugs. House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez called the CBCP “thick-faced” and “a bunch of shameless hypocrites” for criticizing the government but failing to discipline their own priests.

This attack touches on religious freedom as it affects the communities of the Catholic faith, mainly in the provinces, who rely on the Catholic networks for sources not just of news but of sustained evangelization.


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