Solidarity with Rappler and ABS-CBN
As a Filipino citizen, and as an opinion journalist in these troubled times, I would like to register my solidarity with two media institutions under attack today — ABS-CBN, whose franchise still has not been renewed, and Rappler, whose publisher Maria Ressa and former researcher Rey Santos Jr. were convicted last Monday of cyberlibel.
Despite banal invocations of “dura lex, sed lex,” it is hard not to view these two cases as part of a constellation of tyranny. President Duterte may never have filed a libel case, but can we not see how the fates of media organizations today seemingly correlate with their criticality toward the President — and the President’s criticality toward them? Our laws, no matter how eloquently interpreted, can never be taken out of their political contexts.
As the congressional hearings on ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal drag on, it is difficult not to recognize the hypocrisy that informs the termination of its license. While other networks were given provisional authority by the NTC pending legislative approval of their franchise renewals, ABS-CBN was denied one; while the supposed 50-year rule is being cited against it, its rival network, GMA-7, is celebrating its 70 years of existence; while congressmen accuse the network of being foreign-owned, they roll out the legislative red carpet for foreign ownership in different sectors.
Meanwhile, millions of Filipinos are cut off from news, information, and entertainmentv—vand 11,000 workers’ jobs are needlessly, capriciously, imperiled.
As for the case of Rappler, once again, it is difficult not to apprehend the glaring contrasts in a country where fake news peddlers are rewarded with government positions, and government officials themselves have no problem releasing uncorroborated matrices, drug lists, and even fake sex videos — never mind the “personal reputations” of those implicated in them (lest we forget, Sen. Leila de Lima is still in jail). In contrast, as Sheila Coronel put it, Maria Ressa was convicted “for an article she did not write, edit, or supervise, of a crime that hadn’t even existed when the story was published.”
Coupled with the recent reports of people being arrested for criticizing the President in social media, as well as the killings that have made the country among the world’s most dangerous places for journalism, the only conclusion we can make is that democratic space has further narrowed down in our country — to the detriment not just of journalists but also the Filipino people.
Of course, this is not to say that media companies and individuals are beyond reproach and immune to allegations of libel, bias, corruption, on top of criticisms about their role in Philippine society. We need not look far to find examples of journalists and media influencers who have used their platforms to foment hate, propagate fake news, or serve as attack dogs for their political masters.
The ABS-CBN case, however, is not a debate about its relevance, but on its right to exist based on our laws, and on whether such laws are being weaponized against it. Similarly, the Rappler case raises the question of why, in this age of quo warranto, nothing seems legally impossible if politically desirable. I find it supremely ironic that Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa would cite Nelson Mandela in her decision against Ressa and Santos; if anything, Mandela’s 27 years in jail serves as a grim reminder of the extent to which governments will go to suppress activism, supported by judges who give their imprimatur to such deeds.
But at the same time, as the example of Mandela also shows, there are limits to tyranny, no matter how popular, no matter how powerful. Marcos may have managed to shut down the free press — including ABS-CBN — in 1972, but in 1986, its members were back to report his ouster. In fact, many of them never left, bravely reporting the evils of martial law from underground. The Rappler newsroom I visited in 2016 may have looked glum with all the trolling and hate they faced, but very soon they had redoubled their resolve.
The Maria Ressa who showed up in the courtroom last Monday was not diminished by her guilty verdict — and neither should our determination be to resist the ever-growing, but as I believe, ultimately ill-fated, threats to democracy and press freedom.
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