Is this the beginning of the end for freedom of the press in the Philippines?

A protester covered his mouth with tape on Wednesday during a protest for press freedom in Manila. (Rolex dela Pena/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
A protester covered his mouth with tape on Wednesday during a protest for press freedom in Manila. (Rolex dela Pena/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has never gotten along with the press. Three media companies have incurred his particular ire: the ABS-CBN television and radio network, the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper, and the news website Rappler. At one time or another, each has offended Duterte by reporting on his ongoing drug war, his personal finances, or even his personal history. He has denounced all three outlets during his trademark vitriolic speeches.

On January 11, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission issued a decision, declaring that Rappler had violated the Philippine Constitution’s requirement of 100 percent Filipino ownership for media companies. The commission also declared that the news organization had used a legal loophole to accept investment from two foreign companies, and immediately revoked the certificate of incorporation of Rappler and its holding company, citing “a deceptive scheme to circumvent the Constitution”.

The solicitor general has referred the commission’s decision to the Department of Justice, recommending the prosecution of Rappler’s board for violating investment law. In turn, the Justice Department has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to start putting together a case. All of this in one week.

A brief history of Duterte’s other attacks on the press might be in order.

His first target was the Inquirer. The government took the newspaper’s owners to court over a disputed property. The judge (who was later promoted by the president) found in the government’s favor. Soon after being evicted from the property, the newspaper owners announced they’d sold their shares in the company to a tycoon who is perceived to be close to Duterte.

By the time of Duterte’s second State of the Nation Address in July 2017, he had solved — or so he thought — his problem with the Inquirer. So he used his speech to zero in on ABS-CBN and Rappler, accusing both of violating the constitutional Filipino ownership requirement.

Duterte was merely making a public announcement of a process that was already well underway. Earlier that same month, acting on a request by the solicitor general, the Securities and Exchange Commission started investigating Rappler’s ownership structure. Six months later, it was ready to announce Rappler’s corporate execution.

This leaves ABS-CBN. The Duterte-controlled Congress is highly unlikely to renew the network’s license to operate when it expires in 2020, well within Duterte’s six-year term. Over the Christmas holidays, Duterte floated a deal, saying he was open to a quid pro quo with the network’s owners: If they would support Duterte’s plan to move the country to a federal system, he would make sure their license is renewed. This is no idle threat, as the Catholic hierarchy, which has publicly criticized the president’s war on drugs, found out late last year. In October, Congress declined to renew the license of the Catholic Media Network, which consists of more than 50 radio stations, effectively putting them in legal limbo.

During the two decades Duterte served as mayor of Davao City, he had great success in cowing the local media. As president, he has found it much more difficult to deal with a more combative national media, one he grew to loathe during the 2016 presidential campaign that brought him to power. When he was the president-elect, a media organization called upon journalists to boycott his press conferences after he justified the killing of journalists he deemed corrupt. Duterte angrily responded with a boycott of his own, refusing to hold press conferences or otherwise interact with reporters for three months.

But he has grown into the presidency, and has either figured out or been advised to see a better way. In the end, white collar crimes will still lead to jail time. This is the officially desired end for Rappler’s board. The soon-to-be former owners of the Inquirer, he also announced, will be charged with plunder. Under Philippine law, it is a major crime when illegal wealth is amassed, and it is potentially a hanging offense if the death penalty is restored. The president’s dangled deal with ABS-CBN will soon have to show results. All three of these companies are industry leaders, so their current travails all have a chilling effect on the rest of media.

Duterte’s attitude that freedom belongs only to those who obey will soon be enshrined in the Constitution. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to convene Congress as a Constituent Assembly to propose a large number of amendments, including proposed changes to the Bill of Rights. Where it now says “No law shall be passed abridging the exercise of 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”, the House wants to insert the word “responsible”, granting the government radical discretion in interpreting what is a “responsible exercise” of freedom of speech.

The Philippines’ slide towards illiberality is accelerating.

Manuel Quezon III is a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper, and the host of the political affairs show “The Explainer” on the ABS-CBN TV news channel.

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