Philippines Trying To Shut Down Popular News Site For Reporting On President Duterte
from the freedom-of-the-press? dept
The Philippines has a “free speech” amendment in their Constitution not unlike the American First Amendment. In the Philippines, it’s actually their 4th amendment:
No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.
From Filipinos I’ve spoken to, they seem rightfully proud of this right to free speech. And they should be. But these things only matter if they’re actually respected. And there’s growing evidence that, under President Duterte, there’s little respect for such things. A few days ago, the news broke that the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission was pulling the license of Rappler, a popular Filipino news source started by Maria Ressa. I was privileged to hear Ressa speak at a conference last summer (she was originally supposed to be a participant in a session that I was organizing, but it was much better having her speak separately about the challenges she was facing in covering news in the Philippines). Rappler has really done some amazing work under fairly challenging circumstances.
And… it appears that those challenging circumstances are leading the government in the Philippines to try to shut them down. The official reason for pulling the license is the claim from the SEC that Rappler has violated rules concerning foreign ownership.
The En Banc finds Rappler, Inc. and Rappler Holdings Corporation, a Mass Media Entity and its alter ego, liable for violating the constitutional and statutory Foreign Equity Restriction in Mass Media, enforceable through laws and rules within the mandate of the commission
That, alone, should raise some questions about (1) why they need a license to operate and (2) why it matters how much is owned by foreigners. But the larger issue is that it’s not at all clear that the supposed foreign ownership claim is accurate. It does appear that Rappler engaged in a fairly cumbersome financial transaction to allow foreign entities — including the Omidyar Network — to help fund its reporting. And some of that involved “Philippine Depository Receipts” or PDRs whose value is tied to the value of Rappler equity — but which do not grant any actual ownership stake in the company. To the SEC in the Philippines, this appears to be a meaningless distinction, but it actually makes plenty of sense. You can sell an asset class that is tied to the value of something else without it granting equity in the original thing.
What this really comes down to is that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is not at all happy with Rappler’s coverage of his administration — and has a history of directly calling out Rappler, and falsely claiming that it’s “fully owned by Americans.” Earlier this week, while denying having anything to do with the SEC pulling Rappler’s license, he also made it clear that he has no problem attacking the site:
Earlier this week, Mr Duterte had addressed a Rappler reporter, saying “you have been throwing trash… If you are trying to throw garbage at us, then the least that we can do is explain how about you? Are you also clean?”
And, as if to make the point even stronger that the Philippines is moving away from its Constitutional support of free speech, some legislators in the Philippines are trying to amend the Constitution to massively weaken the free speech protections in the country, such that they only apply to the laughably vague “responsible exercise” of free speech:
“In the Bill of Rights, we see everything there to be acceptable, except Article 3, Section 4 (freedom of speech),” Capiz Rep. Fredenil Castro (2nd district) said Tuesday during the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments’ hearing on the proposed amendments to the Constitution.
A subcommittee proposed to reword the provision to read, “No law shall be passed abridging the ‘responsible exercise’ of freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
Castro said many believe the constitutional guarantee of free speech has been “unrestrained.”
“There is so much abuse of this freedom,” he added.
That’s… quite a statement. First of all, if your freedom of expression protections are limited to the “reasonable exercise” of free speech you have no free speech protections, because the government can and will always define speech it dislikes as unreasonable (see Duterte’s comments above). Second, the whole point of protecting freedom of expression is that it’s “unrestrained.” To complain about that seems preposterous. Similarly what Castro sees as “abuse of this freedom” actually means “exercising of this freedom in a way I dislike.” And that’s the point of having true support for freedom of expression — that many times it will be disliked by the representatives of the government, but they should be unable to block it.
Unfortunately, it appears some in power in the Philippines see it entirely differently. And, thus it appears that what the Philippines has touted as freedom of expression may be anything but that. Thankfully, not everyone in the government agrees. As reported in Rappler (naturally), some find this problematic:
The House opposition bloc did not agree with this proposal.
“How can you define responsible? What is responsible for them? So when you say responsible, it’s what favors them?” said Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano, citing the proliferation of disinformation and propaganda from online personalities who are apparent supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat said this provision could be used to curtail freedom of expression.
“That’s why, what happened to Rappler, that’s because they feel it’s not a ‘responsible’ media institution. And I’m sure other media institutions are threatened right now. So that’s the thing, who defines?” he said.
Hopefully cooler heads prevail. Supporting freedom of expression means going all in — and the Philippines seems to be perilously close to completely ditching the concept.