IT was shocking for international human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney, whose fame was boosted by her marriage to the actor George Clooney, to casually portray Philippine media as being subjugated as that of North Korea or targeted for attack by an “autocratic” regime as that of Myanmar.
What makes Clooney’s remarks so damaging for the country is that they were made in an international event, the United Nations Correspondents Association Awards in New York last week, and in the course of bashing the US president, Donald Trump.
Claiming that the press globally is under attack as never before, Clooney said: “The chilling effect is real and it has already been felt, not only in Myanmar but further afield as…by autocratic regimes from North Korea to the Philippines… The US President has given such regimes a green light and labelled the press in this country the enemy of the people.”
We should protest such atrocious claims by Clooney. It just boggles the mind that we are compared to North Korea, ruled by a one-man dictator where all media outlets are controlled by the state. It just boggles the mind that we are compared to Myanmar, where a judge in September convicted three Reuters correspondents to seven years in prison for allegedly violating that country’s laws in their reportage.
How could the Philippine press be like the state-controlled media in North Korea when anti-government outfits like the Philippine Daily Inquirer have not let up in their penchant for spinning news events so President Duterte is portrayed as an autocrat, and his allies as corrupt?
…When the largest newspaper in the country, with a mass following that dwarfs all the other broadsheets, has its editor writing daily columns which do not miss a single day badmouthing Duterte in the most vulgar manner that throws reason to the garbage? (Example: “Paninira, pagmumura at pang-aalipusta ni P-DU30 sa Simbahan, pantakip sa kapalpakan ng administrasyon?”)
…When the three biggest broadcast companies — ABS-CBN, GMA7 and Channel 5 — control 80 percent of the country’s viewership, all of which jump at the slightest excuse to criticize this administration?
Among the freest
I belabor the point. Anybody in this industry I’m part of would conclude without the shadow of a doubt that rather than having a timid or suppressed press, the Philippine press is among the freest and the rowdiest in the world.
How could Clooney, an internationally respected barrister, be so grossly misinformed that the media situation here is just like North Korea and Myanmar?
We can thank — or rather condemn — two women who may have had their heyday as respected journalists two decades ago, but who have deteriorated into propagandists so biased not just against Duterte but the nation itself: Maria Ressa, Rappler editor and CEO, and Sheila Coronel, director of the Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.
Ressa has been on a campaign abroad — tapping her international network when she was with CNN and that of the Yellow oligarchs — to portray Duterte as a one-man ruler suppressing the Philippine press. Why is she doing that?
It is because that is the only way of covering up her enormous blunders that got Rappler and herself into very serious trouble with the law.
What Ressa did with Rappler would be a hilarious comedy of errors, if not for the fact made her demonize Duterte in the world as her way out of her deep quagmire.
Because of the huge expenses she racked up, the capital put up mainly by property magnate Benjamin Bitanga was exhausted by 2015. I was told this amounted to P200 million because of her purchase of expensive, or overpriced, internet technology in order to quickly have a niche in the world wide web.
After a hilariously unsuccessful effort to fool netizens into funding Rappler, Ressa tapped her US contacts and got P150 million in investments from two American firms, Omidyar Network and North Base Media, venture capital firms for media. Rappler even boasted about it.
However, Ressa hadn’t read the Constitution, or didn’t consult with corporate lawyers. I suspect she was operating in 2015 under a culture of impunity since Rappler had the total backing of then president Benigno Aquino 3rd, for whom it was a media cheerleader.
Whatever the reasons, Rappler clearly violated the Constitution’s total ban on foreign money in media. Despite Ressa’s hilarious, initial efforts to claim that Rappler wasn’t a media firm and therefore could get foreign money, the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled that it violated that constitutional ban, which was implemented through several laws. Rappler’s patron Aquino was no longer in power to tell the SEC not to touch it. It ruled that Rappler had no legal stature.
So, Ressa changed tack. She claimed that the two foreign firms’ money were no longer investments. They donated the money to its 14 managers. What she failed to realize was that such “donations” require a gift tax, which the managers who really won’t see a centavo of the gift to them would have to pay taxes on these to the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Of course, no Rappler manager agreed to pay the over P40 million in gift taxes.
So, Ressa changed tack again, mimicking what PLDT did to cover up the majority control of the firm by the Indonesian tycoon Anthoni Salim, and claimed that Rappler wasn’t getting foreign money but had issued Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) instead, which technically weren’t stocks but rights to the income of those stocks.
The SEC kept mum on Rappler’s move, either because the case had been brought up to the Court of Appeals. Or maybe it was secretly laughing at Ressa.
The issuance of the PDRs meant an income for Rappler and Ressa (who was a major stockholder) of P180 million, which wasn’t reported at all to the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The BIR of course did its job, and charged them with tax fraud, and demanded payment of the taxes due amounting to, including penalties, of P133 million. “Clear case of persecution by the Duterte government, media of the world, unite against press suppression,” Ressa has since cried out.
Her accomplice in painting the Philippines black overseas has been Coronel, who, as a senior adviser of the Committee to Protect Journalists, worked feverishly for Ressa to be given its Press Freedom Award for 2018, purportedly for being the target of Duterte’s wrath through the cases filed against her and Rappler. Clooney was at the ceremony in New York for the award for Ressa and heard about and believed the horrid but totally false tale of the suppression of the press in the Philippines.
Ressa and Coronel’s despicable belief is that if Duterte is badgered with international pressure that he is violating press freedom, the BIR would withdraw the tax cases against her.
I had admired Coronel as an intrepid and professional journalist, especially in her work at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, which she co-founded with me and several others in the 1980s.
However, she has been swallowed up in the anti-Duterte (and anti-Trump) bias and ideology of the left-liberal American media establishment ever since she joined Colombia University teaching American journalists investigative journalism.
I was convinced of her bias when in her article last year in a journal (revealingly titled “A Presidency Bathed in Blood”) she wrote: “The drug war, which Duterte officially launched on his first day in office, has claimed the lives of as many as 9,000 suspected drug dealers and users.”
I asked her through Facebook’s Messenger where she got that 9,000 number, a topic of considerable interest to me as I wrote three columns debunking that figure, which was based on a completely wrong Rappler article. She replied, “Numerous news reports quote that figure.” She no longer replied when I informed her that those “numerous reports” were by other reporters that gullibly believed Rappler’s made-up figure.
That is the director of an investigative journalism center in a top American university?
In her introductory speech at the ceremony that gave Ressa the Press Freedom award, Coronel said: “President Duterte has called journalists ‘bullshit,’ ‘garbage,’ ‘sons of bitches.’ He says we are corrupt hypocrites who ‘pretend to be the moral torch of the country’.”
That is a totally despicable distortion. Duterte indeed made those statements, but during the electoral campaign in early 2016. And he didn’t’ attack media as a whole, but in a fit of anger, ABS-CBN Broadcasting and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which were all-out supporting the Yellow candidate Mar Roxas, and sensationalizing the allegations against Duterte.
The Davao mayor blew his top and made those remarks when the PDI had, two months before elections, in 2016 as its banner story Antonio Trillanes 4th’s allegation that was headlined “Duterte accounts had P2.4 billion,” which turned many months later to be complete fabrication.
Exploiting the rabid anti-Trump sentiments of the American audience in New York, Coronel claimed: “Like Trump, Duterte considers the press an enemy.” That is a total lie. Duterte obviously doesn’t consider as an enemy the Philippine Star, the Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard, this paper, Bulgar and scores of other newspapers and broadcast outfits.
Except for a few potshots when he first took office in July 216 against the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler’s Malacañang reporter Pia Ranada (whom he really was just playing with), Duterte has been friendly to a fault with Philippine media, even saying things before journalists he shouldn’t be saying.
Anybody who has covered the Philippine president would have no doubt that Duterte has spent more time talking to media — both in press conferences and in small groups of columnists and reporters — than any other president.
Coronel wasn’t even imaginative in her speech, and used a worn-out cliché: “But unlike the US president, Duterte doesn’t just get mad. He gets even.” She claimed: “Duterte has thrown the entire playbook of ‘How to Attack The Press’ at Maria and at Rappler. They’ve been sued multiple times, accused of evading taxes, violating the anti-dummy law that bans foreign media ownership.”
What? The SEC and the BIR have been enforcing Philippine laws which Rappler, a high-profile outfit, has been flagrantly violating — and this is just Duterte’s playbook?
Coronel and Ressa thinks too much of Rappler. Other than its fabrication in early 2017 of the number of people killed in Duterte’s anti-drug war, Rappler nor Ressa has had no solid journalistic piece that dealt a serious blow to the president. It’s attacks on Duterte have been amateurish or petty spinning of news events, which nobody takes seriously. Why would Duterte attack such an unconvincing critic, and risk damaging his image abroad? Rappler is even solely an internet news site Duterte doesn’t even read, and therefore has very little following among the masses.
In contrast, the Rufino/Prieto clan lost its control of a piece of prime commercial land when government moved to take it back last year, as its lease since the 1980s had expired in 2009. Government claimed P1.8 billion in unpaid rentals, and the clan would be losing at least P100 million in rentals it can no longer claim.
The clan owns the still-powerful Philippine Daily Inquirer which has well-read anti-Duterte columnists and whose news articles are spun to be critical of the his government to this day. Compared to PDI with its influence on public opinion, Rappler is a student publication in some obscure school.
Did the Rufino/Preito clan claim that it lost Mile Long because it was critical of Duterte, and begged to be given a Press Freedom Award? No. It very professionally got good lawyers to argue its case in the courts.
Ressa should do that, and be a professional journalist. Coronel should use her waning investigative-journalism skills on Trump, since after all she has been in US for a dozen years now, obviously becoming a media person of the American liberal media establishment.
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(**Originally published in The Manila Times Dec 12, 2018**)