BY LOUIS “BAROK” BIRAOGO
It’s December, the time of the year when Time, the famous international news magazine, announces its choice for person or persons of the year, and heralds it on its cover.
For 2018, Time chose three journalists and one newspaper: Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian writer who was murdered inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey; Reuters correspondents Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo who were detained in Myanmar for almost a year; Filipino online journalist and Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa; and an American newspaper, the Capital Gazette, where five of its writers were shot dead at its head office.
Time called them “guardians,” ostensibly for standing up for the truth in the face of persecution and violence.
Business allies and supporters of Ressa hailed the latter’s selection and invoked it against President Rodrigo Duterte, who is seen by his critics as intolerant of press freedom.
So far, not every critic of President Duterte is buying the Time line, and rightly so.
To say that Ressa is a guardian of press freedom because she stood up for the truth in the face of persecution in violence is an overstatement, bordering on fake news. Most certainly, Time got its story all wrong.
The 1987 Constitution mandates that the ownership and management of mass media in the Philippines shall be limited to Filipino citizens, or to business entities wholly owned and managed by Filipino citizens. This prohibition is a policy statement because of its strict citizenship requirement. Precisely because it is a policy statement recited in the Constitution itself, any attempt to circumvent it must be considered patently illegal. Under the Constitution, what may not be done directly cannot be done indirectly.
Earlier last year, the government learned that Rappler took in substantial investments from a foreign entity, and that Rappler issued so-called “Philippine depository receipts” to the foreign entity. When the government asked Rappler to explain why it allowed a foreign entity to invest in it in violation of the Constitution, Rappler peddled the story that the money was a loan, and not an investment, and that the foreign entity does not interfere with the online content of Rappler.
That argument is legally unsound, because no creditor in his or its right mind will invest big money in a corporate enterprise unless the creditor has a say in the management of the business. Since foreigners are not allowed a management role in a mass medium like Rappler, the government took legal measures against Rappler before the Securities and Exchange Commission and the courts.
Ressa cleverly played the “press freedom” card by accusing the government of muzzling press freedom, and of seeking the closure of Rappler for being a staunch critic of President Duterte. While doing so, Ressa was conveniently and unethically silent regarding its alleged circumvention of the Constitution.
Being a medium for the dissemination of news online, Rappler is entitled to constitutional protection. Entitlement to constitutional protection, however, is not synonymous to exemption from complying with the mandatory provisions of the Constitution.
In other words, legal measures were taken by the government against Rappler, not because it is an online news medium critical of the government, but because the government saw that Rappler violated the constitutional ban against alien management of mass media in the Philippines.
The legal measures taken by the government against Rappler do not include any prohibition against continuing to disseminate the news minus the participation of foreign investors. How then can the legal measures against Rappler be considered as anti-press freedom? Where then are the imagined persecution and violence?
Those in the know are aware that Rappler was not standing up to the truth. On the contrary, Rappler was concealing the truth that its operations were in violation of the Constitution.
Late last year, tax evasion charges were filed against Ressa for Rappler’s failure to pay the correct amount of taxes. As usual, Rappler claimed that press freedom was being threatened by the government, unaware that the Supreme Court has already ruled that the mass media are not exempted from paying the correct amount of taxes.
By the way, being cited by Time as its person of the year is not exactly a great honor like getting the Nobel Prize. During his time, Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany was named Time’s man of the year.
With that in mind, it is everyone’s earnest hope that Time will not repeat last year’s error with Rappler. •••