Philippines is currently gripped in what can only be described as a very American style scandal regarding freedom of the press and honesty within the press. The news and option website Rappler has come under fire from law enforcement, due to the fact that it is partially owned and financed by foreign money. The 1986 Constitution of The Philippines which ushered in the post-Marcos era, makes it clear that any partial or full foreign ownership/funding of large news outlets based in the country is illegal.
Rappler maintain their innocence saying that because the foreign shareholders do not constitute equity in the company nor influence over editorial policy, their operation is legal.
What could have been a battle between lawyers on the technicalities of a long established law, has instead become a self-styled battle over “free speech”. President Rodrigo Duterte’s approval rating remains over 70% based on conservative estimates, while individual Duterte policies in both domestic and foreign affairs remain individually high. Increasingly, Duterte’s towering presence in politics has become a battle of ideas in which his opponents bring less and less to the table. Because of this, Duterte’s opponents have resorted to the time tested American practice of questioning their rival’s ethics rather than his policies.
Rappler supporters, who are primarily drawn from Liberal Party supporters, have claimed that Duterte’s administration is trying to “shut down” the media outlet because of its anti-Duterte editorial position. These same protesters conveniently ignore the fact that Rappler itself does not deny foreign investment, but simply states that their interpretation of the Constitutional law in question is different than that of law enforcement authorities.
An issue that would normally be a question for lawyers, has become a question for activists, as it so often becomes in the US, all the while, the bigger picture is being obscured. Free speech in Philippines is not only healthy but it is healthier than it has ever been.
Duterte’s leadership has invigorated the country with a new sense of confidence, a new willingness to discuss the big issues and even a more robust opposition. Politicians who once felt their vested roles as governing elites was a matter of right, now realise they must derive their power from the people and as a result, they are becoming more publicly vocal about topical issues–even though few of them have any real ideas on how to oppose Duterte other than ‘going back’ to the largely discredited post-Marcos yellow leaning consensus.
The opposition in Philippines, which due to a unique Constitutional provision mandating a separate vote for President and Vice President, controls the Vice Presidential office, which is about as far from “oppressed” as one can get. Furthermore, yellow Filipinos are not losing their right to speak–they are merely losing popularity. At the same time, Filipino social media and “new media” is buzzing with the kinds of impassioned, informed and genuine debates that would make the so-called free societies governed by Duterte’s opponents blush with envy. My own experience has led me to understand that Filipinos are far more politically engaged than their North American or European counterparts.
Because Filipino Liberals cannot offer alternatives to Duterte’s landmark rapprochement with China, his open door with Russia, his anti-crime and anti-oligarch drive which has seen high levels of infrastructural investment flow into the country, his anti-colonial foreign policy, his education reforms and his proposed Federal system to make Philippines a more fair country–they simply accuse him of “being a dictator”.
Ironically, even if Duterte wanted to further consolidate power, he would still likely retain his popularity. In many ways, this might even make him more popular. Democracy does not imply suffrage nor does it imply anything to do with free speech laws. Democracy simply means “rule of the people” and if Duterte rules for the people, with their approval–he is de-facto democratic. This is a technical sticking point that makes the opponents of any popular leader deeply uncomfortable because it means they cannot hide behind platitudes and false definitions of democracy.
In any case, Duterte has stated over and over again that he does not plan to change any voting laws or free speech laws in the country and has in the past, even spoken to protesters face to face, regarding their grievances. The matter of Rappler is a matter for lawyers and judges, but the matter of free speech is self-evident. Filipinos have never been more free to speak out on political issues. It is the fact that the majority of the people speak in favour of Duterte that has the yellow politicians and journalists frightened and looking for scandals where none exist.