Since the U.S. colonial era, governments in the Philippines have primarily used two weapons against the press: advertising boycotts and libel threats.
Ferdinand Marcos opened his dictatorship with the mass arrest of critics, including journalists, and a mass shutdown of media. Few of his successors have dared go as far. President Joseph Estrada instead preferred to use a libel suit and advertising boycotts to strike back at offending media, although President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo went as far as sending troops to surround a newspaper and a TV network in 2006.
But a relatively new weapon is gaining popularity in the presidential anti-media arsenal. First used by Macapagal-Arroyo when she ordered the filing of a case contesting the conditions of a government lease of property to the Prieto family, then owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, it uses commercial disputes and the regulatory power of the state as tactics in a war against media owners perceived as enemies of the incumbent.
Energetic pursuit of the Prieto case resulted in the courts ruling against them last year, which, combined with repeated denunciations of the paper and its owners, created such an adverse situation for the family that they were forced to announce the sale of the paper to a businessman with close ties to President Rodrigo Duterte.
A new battlefield
Duterte then accused the broadcast network ABS-CBN and online news site Rappler of circumventing domestic ownership requirements for mass media when they offered Philippine Depositary Receipts, an investment vehicle that allows foreign investments without the actual sale of shares of stock. The sale of shares is what constitutes ownership of a corporation under Philippine law.
Earlier this week, six months after the president’s comments, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission effectively shut down Rappler, announcing it was canceling one of two Philippine Depositary Receipts issued by Rappler, as well as revoking its corporate registration and that of its holding company. It opens up the board to charges under legislation that considers those acting as ‘dummies of foreigners’ to circumvent ownership restrictions guilty of a criminal offense.
Rappler has called the decision politically motivated, pointing not only to the relative swiftness of the proceedings, but also the harsh penalties that deny any chance to rectify the situation. While the SEC claims it was acting in response to the specific and unique wording of depositary receipts relating to one foreign investor, and should therefore not cause alarm for other companies, the president had made no such distinction. After all, he accused not just Rappler, but also ABS-CBN, of the same thing.
The decision has set off alarm bells among domestic and foreign media outfits—considering that Duterte has repeatedly denounced Rappler, the Inquirer, and ABS-CBN portends that the full might of the state could be used against them. And yet the Supreme Court once ordered that a radio station shut down over a taxation dispute be reopened on free speech grounds, while another Supreme Court decision elevated the Bill of Rights in the hierarchy of constitutional provisions—and since freedom of speech and the press is in the Bill of Rights, could it not then be privileged above another provision mandating domestic ownership of mass media?
The next threat?
As interesting and ripe for judicial exploration as this may be, the here and now presents a chilling time for Philippine media outlets as they strive to report on a range of stories Duterte would rather they didn’t cover in depth, such as the rampant killings in the war on drugs.
For now, the media can still use the constitutional protection of free speech as a defense against political attacks. But there are signs that the Bill of Rights could be changed—and soon.
Last Tuesday, on the same day that Duterte heaped scorn on critical media outlets, the House of Representatives formally proposed amending the clause on freedom of expression to apply only to so-called “responsible” speech. The House of Representative subcommittee that made the recommendation said the move was in response to how free speech, in the minds of aggrieved politicians, had been abused.
While readers and views have expressed sympathy for the affected media outlets, there is plenty of antipathy too. For older journalists, it all seems a repeat of the 1970s, when the rambunctious Philippine press was shut down and the public quickly adapted to the situation. But there can be no doubt that instead of the usual war of attrition, to which many in media have grown accustomed, the latest strike by Duterte has left journalists stunned.
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