I’m no lawyer, so it’s beyond my competence to comment on the merits of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision to withdraw the registration of Rappler, the online news site, for alleged violation of foreign-ownership limits in the 1987 Constitution. I can only express surprise, like others have, at the swiftness and severity of the SEC’s punitive action, given reports of similar precedents that did not merit similarly drastic action from it. But that’s all I would say about that.
What I would comment on are the merits of the law itself, which completely bars foreign ownership of mass media operating in the country, along with similar foreign-ownership restrictions enshrined in the Constitution. It is, in my view and that of many others, an antiquated provision. Why so?
Our Constitution completely bars foreign ownership on mass media, while limiting it to 40 percent for public utilities and educational institutions, and 30 percent for advertising. But vast changes in technology and economic realities have rendered most of those constitutional restrictions obsolete, irrelevant, or even counterproductive. The common thread among these restrictions is the apparent intent of our charter framers to “protect” Filipinos from being “brainwashed” by foreigners. The restrictions were clearly meant for an era long gone, when newspapers, magazines and domestic broadcast networks were the only means for reaching the wide masses of the Filipino public.
But since the advent of satellite communications and the internet, mass media, advertising and education have become borderless and global in reach. Through satellite TV and the internet, foreign media organizations, whether located here or overseas, are readily accessible to the general public, as are domestic ones. Any Filipino internet user—and that means the majority of Filipinos—can access content from any media organization anywhere in the world. Estimates as of late 2017 by global digital services provider Kepios, in its Global Digital 2017 Report, place internet penetration in the Philippines at 61 million, or 58 percent. The Ericsson Mobility Report expects smartphone usage in the country to reach 90 million by 2021. Short of strictly censoring the internet the way the Chinese government does—something I assume the vast majority of Filipinos will not stand for—there is simply no way to prevent foreigners from disseminating messages and content to the wide Filipino public. In this age of information and communication technology and social media, there’s no longer any point to the nationality restriction on mass media, as well as on advertising and education.
What it does is to deprive us of opportunities to attract investments that could bring in capital, jobs and improved technology. Foreign media firms like BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, CNBC and the like could possibly set up a base hub here to draw on certain strengths we have to offer, including in the generation of content with our relative superiority in language and artistic skills. After all, all mass media broadcasting locally, whether Filipino or foreign-owned, are subject to the same inherent power of the government to regulate content and business practices for the common good. The same holds for global advertising firms, for which the world-renowned Filipino talent for design is a strong attraction to locate here.
Meanwhile, barring foreign educational institutions, especially in higher education, has ruled out the opportunity to attract leading world universities to establish branches here, as some of our Asean neighbors have (e.g., Yale in Singapore, Johns Hopkins in Malaysia and Singapore). This would help spur improvement in the general level of quality of our higher education institutions, and could only help upgrade our standing in the global knowledge marketplace. Why are we so afraid of being brainwashed by foreigners, when all our schools, foreign or domestic, are subject to regulation by the state anyway?
For a country whose people have made us a “borderless nation” spread all across foreign lands, our seemingly inordinate fear of foreigners sounds rather misplaced.