After a visit to Singapore, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa is currently in San Francisco where she’ll almost certainly be meeting with powerful and very rich friends from America’s Silicon Valley tech industry. Even though Ressa is set to face trial on charges of cyber-libel against Filipino businessman Wilfredo Keng, this has not stopped her from globe-trotting to some of the world’s most expensive cities (Singapore and San Francisco are expensive even for those earning in USD). So much for being the “oppressed journalist” that she and her supporters claim that she is.
To understand how Ressa’s globe trotting travel makes a mockery of her own arguments about press freedom in The Philippines, one only needs to examine the fate of a journalist whose press freedom and human freedom have been crushed at the hands of the United States, Ecuador and Britain. This journalist and publisher is of course Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. For over a year, Assange has been without any digital contact with the outside world after Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno agreed to sever Assange’s internet connection.
Beyond this, Assange has been held in a de facto prison inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for nearly seven years. As a result, his physical and mental health have severely deteriorated according to the most recent medical report on Assange that has been made public.
Assange remains caught between a rock of being arrested by UK authorities on a bail charge related to an Swedish investigation that has been dropped in full and the hard place of a US justice system that seeks Assange’s extradition and almost certain execution thereafter.
The contrast could not be wider. Julian Assange has never once had to retract a single published statement as false and as such, his 100% accurate record of exposing war crimes, crimes against humanity, corruption, the violation of civilian human rights and anti-democratic election rigging remains a shining example of what true journalism is all about.
The kinds of material that fill the fatuous pages of Rappler do not even bear mentioning in the comparison with Assange.
Far from being the kind of North Korean style press regime that the Rappler brigade would have one believe, press freedom in The Philippines is something of a free-for-all where rich oligarchs who own mainstream media outlets can say and do what they want whilst everyone else has little more than social media at their disposal. This paradoxically is why social media has become so popular in The Philippines. It is the only way to circumvent the iron curtain of liberal oligarch owned mainstream media. Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew warned of the problems associated with the press in The Philippines over thirty years ago.
In the 1980s, Lee said that the chaotic and scandal hungry press atmosphere of The Philippines 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.
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.
Thus, one sees The Philippines as a place where the press is both free and expensive. It if free insofar as people can say what they want apart from that which is libellous, but it is expensive because of the small cabal of oligarchs who control mass media.
This somewhat mundane reality is nothing like the situation that Maria Ressa would have the wider world believe she is in. If one wants to know what an actual suppression of the press looks like, one only needs to read about what is happening to Julian Assange. In short, Assange is confined to a dank room without visitors nor any contact with the outside world. This is a world away from visits to expensive destinations like Singapore and San Francisco.
Those who claim that actual press freedom is curtailed by the state in The Philippines are insulting the intelligence of the civilised world and frankly that of anyone with a brain larger than that of a mosquito.