Reviling Revillame: the downside of ad boycotts | Inquirer Opinion
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Reviling Revillame: the downside of ad boycotts

NOWADAYS IT is easy to hate Willie Revillame, and that makes it easy for people to demand that advertisers boycott his show for its offensive episode featuring a kid dirty dancing. The cause is certainly right. We must protect minors not just from public shame, but likewise from the indignity of accepting shame in exchange for cash. To tolerate it is to put a price on human dignity, that of the child’s and that of a benighted and supine public willing to stand idly.

But the chosen means—an advertisers’ boycott—is fraught with danger. We must remember that there were times in the past when we saw the ad boycott as a sinister attack on free expression. The most infamous episode was President Joseph Estrada’s orchestrated attack on the Inquirer in 1999. A more recent example (if benign, because no single media group was singled out) was President Aquino’s call in February this year before the Advertising Board of the Philippines to avoid advertising with media groups that engaged in sensationalism.


The Constitution protects free speech from state censorship, yet here we would allow, nay applaud, market-based censorship. Is it any more wrong for a moral majority to silence the press with the coercive power of the state than it is for them to bully others with the power of money?

We conveniently forget past episodes of ad boycotts because now we feel that we have found a worthy target. There are two problems here. One, Filipinos have short memories. We can make impassioned arguments against ad boycotts in February 2011, and then six weeks later in April, suddenly preach the virtues of ad boycotts with equal fervor. Two, Filipinos do not think normatively; we are “consequentialists.” We don’t see large principles, we see only specific and immediate results. If we like the concrete result, who cares if we jettison a few other principles along the way? When it comes to normative flip-flopping, in this country, no one would remember, no one would care.


(We have done the same thing on other issues. Activists chant hallelujahs when the clergy speaks up on human rights, mining or indigenous peoples. Then when the clergy takes a medieval position on reproductive rights, we suddenly remember the separation of Church and State! Whether the question is about who gets to find joy in our mines, or who gets to mine the earthly joys, the answer ought to come from secular pundits and not spiritual lords.)

It is easy to make distinctions. Normal people would call it hocus-pocus. We lawyers say we are merely “finessing the rule” to suit laudable (or so we say) purposes. There are two possible ways to distinguish the Erap boycott from the anti-Willie boycott.

One, the Erap boycott actually entailed “state action” that was so thinly veiled through corporate actors. The Constitution protects the press only from state censorship, not from censorship by non-state actors. The Philippine Constitution says: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press ….” The press is thus open season to market-based pressure by readers and advertisers who express their condemnation with their wallets.

What we saw especially in the anti-Inquirer attack of 1999 was not the power of the market to bring a media outfit to its knees. It was actually the “awesome powers of the presidency” brought to bear upon a specific newspaper. Erap offered tax incentives to film producers who then readily withdrew their movie advertisements. Three government financial institutions followed suit and cancelled their ad placements soon after. Big business players angling for government contracts were placed on notice that advertising on the pages of the Inquirer would be seen as a very public unfriendly act. The Inquirer reeled from the advertisers’ boycott but heroically prevailed, and proved that the powers of the President were not awesome enough to subdue the power of an indignant readership and an outraged public.

In contrast, the anti-Willie campaign is purely non-governmental. It emanates from outraged citizens, who pressure the advertisers to retreat and snub “Willing Willie.” Therefore, the argument would go, my worries about press freedom are misplaced.

I’m not so sure about that. I concede that the Erap boycott was indeed as governmental as it gets, and involved no less state action than if

Erap had physically padlocked the Inquirer building. But even in the anti-Willie boycott, the “chilling effect” is felt just the same. Sure the boycott chills the deplorable and disgusting, but remember that the freedom of speech clause ensures “freedom [even] for the thought we hate.”


Two, we can also say that there is no truth at stake in chilling Willie’s speech, in contrast to the news reporting and editorial writing involved in the Erap episode. I disagree. To start with, the truth can be at stake even more in art. Jose Rizal’s novels were subversive, and even into the 1950s, private religious groups tried to censor its “unexpurgated” versions out of our curricula. Today the boycott may chill the heat out of Willie’s gyrating half-nudes. Tomorrow another boycott may chill magazine depictions of Francisco Goya’s “La Maja Desnuda.”

The American First Amendment was designed more than 200 years ago to protect the “lonely pamphleteer” and the “soapbox orator.” We apply it today when news is reported and shaped by corporate empires. If there is one lesson that aspiring censors should learn from

Erap’s 1999 boycott, it is that the true capital of any journalistic enterprise is its reputation for truth-telling. The reformer who speaks to them merely as corporate creatures attack merely the body but can’t touch their soul.

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