The deeply controversial CEO of the Philippine website Rappler, Maria Ressa has just been issued with a warrant of arrest stemming from charges of cyber libel. This is of course not the first time that Ressa has been on the wrong side of the law, but it does give her yet another opportunity to complain that her arrest has something to do with a supposed lack of press freedom in The Philippines.
In July of 2018, the Philippine Court of Appeals ruled that Rappler had violated Constitutional law due to its ownership structure. According to Philippine law, organisations classed as mass media outlets must be 100% Filipino owned. As Rappler violated this law due to its corporate associations with the US based Omidyar Network, Philippine authorities revoked Rappler’s mass media licence. Previously, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler’s certificate of incorporation for the same reason.
Of course, none of these previous violations have anything to do with Rappler’s content, but have everything to do with the organisation’s legally defined operational integrity (or lack thereof). However, today’s arrest is related to content insofar as businessman Wilfredo D. Keng has complained to the Philippine Department of Justice that in an article from 2012, Rappler told malicious lies about his professional associations with the now deceased former Chief Justice Renato Corona.
In the real world, freedom of the press does not equate to a freedom to tell specific and malicious lies about individuals. I know this for a fact as Rappler recently published malicious and seriously damaging lies about me. In this sense, I can very much relate to Mr. Keng for obvious reasons.
As for the genuine free sharing of ideas and the reportage of actual fact, the press in The Philippines is not only free but is so free that in the past, those who have maliciously lied about the professional reputations of others have not had to face the consequences proscribed in existing, but previously ignored Philippine law. In this sense, patriotic Filipinos ought to learn from Singapore, that an atmosphere in which the media can tell specific lies about individuals or organisations and get away with it, simply cannot be tolerated.
Last year, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued an author called Leong Sze Hian for libel. The case is ongoing in Singapore’s justice system and therefore Eurasia Future will refrain from commenting on the merits of the case until the matter is settled. However, the very fact that Singapore’s Prime Minister sought to hold Leong to account over the matter of defending his honest reputation, indicates that in Singapore, truth regarding individuals and their public reputations is taken very seriously.
Today’s move by the Department of Justice will hopefully establish a new trend in which the free speech of journalists in respect of voicing their opinions and presenting the facts will be balanced by a tough crack down on those who tell harmful lies about alleged activities of innocent people and institutions.
Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew famously warned of the dangers inherent in the confrontational attitude of the Philippine media and political landscape in the 1980s, saying that such an atmosphere is not conducive to the kinds of problem solving techniques required to build a modern Asian economy. He further cautioned against an overtly Americanised model that may just about work in already wealthy developed nations, but which do not serve the needs of the developing world where cooperative problem solving in the service of national economic development is far more crucial than a confrontational political atmosphere which favours competing interests over finding workable solutions to universal problems which effect all citizens.
Lee was well aware of the difference between a free and healthy exchange of information within the framework of an open market of ideas and a hostile media landscape in which liars are praised whilst those damaged by lies can be perpetually victimised and have their lives destroyed by vicious individuals in the media.
Taken in totality, Duterte’s Philippines seems to be getting the balance right, although there is far more work to be done. If people like myself can still have malicious lies published about them in anti-Duterte media outlets operating in The Philippines, it is clear that not only does speech remain free in The Philippines, but that in respect of policing defamatory lies, the country still is lagging behind some other ASEAN members, including Singapore.
Beyond this, Lee understood that in a developing country, the priority among the citizenry should be economic development, social harmony and creating safe and healthy conditions in which people can thrive. Lee further warned that such things are made all the more difficult if a nation’s media is obsessed with negative attempts at character assassination against one’s real or perceived political opponents.
In this sense, the Rappler mentality of journalism through character assassination is not really journalism at all. It is petty gossip, innuendo, psychological avarice, dark sarcasm and often the telling of untruths – all in the name of points scoring rather than social enlightenment. While those at Rappler who stand accused of receiving investment from rich non-Filipinos self-evidently have the luxury to sit around their computers and think of whose life to ruin next, the real people, the decent people and the hard working people are crying out for a society where women and children can walk down the street without being accosted by someone on Shabu, people are asking for economic growth, job opportunities, modern infrastructure and a shift from a pro-oligarch Imperial Manila mentality to clean government, efficient government and de-centralised government.
For some of the poorest Filipinos, people are asking why all the best opportunities are abroad when for others the best opportunities are at home. They are asking why the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines continues to collect money from the poorest of the poor, while top Church officials live in luxury. They are asking why the price of rice is controlled by domestic oligarchs rather than open markets. And while President Rodrigo Duterte works tirelessly to address and solve these matters, Rappler is busily engaged in a wholesale campaign of viciousness against Duterte, his colleagues, his domestic supporters, his OFW supporters and his foreign admirers.
For Rappler, speech continues to be free but for the poor masses, life is expensive. This is why there is such a disconnect between the false priorities of Rappler and the true aspirations of the people. This helps to further explain why President Duterte remains popular in spite of the sustained smear campaign against him. The differences is that Duterte listens to the people and those with the Rappler mentality listen only to their own egos.