Double trouble for Philippine media

Staff of online news portal Rappler, along with fellow journalists and supporters, protesting last month in Manila against the state-enforced closure of the popular and pioneering news website. President Rodrigo Duterte is said to be a leader who cha
Staff of online news portal Rappler, along with fellow journalists and supporters, protesting last month in Manila against the state-enforced closure of the popular and pioneering news website. President Rodrigo Duterte is said to be a leader who chafes at being challenged by the media.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Combative Duterte, challenges from online giants threaten to mute normally boisterous media

The Philippine media, possibly the most boisterous and freewheeling in Asia, is under siege on two fronts.

While it is facing political pressure from a president who chafes at being challenged, it is also grappling with the harsh reality that audiences are turning away in favour of social media, never mind if the free content is often laced with "fake news".

Since he took office in mid-2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has badgered the owners of top newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer to sell it to one of his wealthiest supporters, arm-twisted broadcaster ABS-CBN into a friendly alliance and pushed pioneering online news site Rappler and dozens of church-run radio stations to the edge.

Recently, a widely-read blogger critical of the country's mercurial leader was forced to flee to a safe house after men posing as inspectors of a cellphone company made their way into her home and began searching for personal information.

"Before, we had a government that was a little more civil. This government has no qualms about lying, running after the media. That is what we are up against," said Ms Ellen Tordesillas, a writer for Vera Files, an investigative news site.

Ms Tordesillas spoke at a two-day conference this week organised by the Inquirer that focused on the proliferation of fake news and disinformation on the Internet to disparage dissent and two-way discourse.

The Philippines has more than a dozen newspapers, four major TV networks and hundreds of radio stations. Most, however, are not profitable, relying on a combination of advertising, government support and cross-subsidies from their owners' other business interests to survive.

Mr Duterte, who has admitted to going after those media organisations for attacking "below the belt", also has a ready band of warriors to do battle on his behalf.

But these days, even those turning a modest profit are seeing their bottom lines dwindle as Facebook, Twitter and Google increasingly become the gatekeepers of information.

That has exposed a vulnerability that Mr Duterte and his allies have learnt to exploit.

In July last year, the owners of the Inquirer sold their majority stake after Mr Duterte threatened to jail them over what he believed were 1.6 billion pesos (S$40.5 million) in back rentals that they owed from use of a prime government property. A business tycoon who backed Mr Duterte's 2016 election bid later disclosed that he was buying the Inquirer.

Mr Duterte had also threatened to block leading television broadcaster ABS-CBN's application to renew its operating franchise, a permit that requires congressional approval. He later backpedalled but only after the network's owners agreed to support his push for a shift to a federal form of government.

The President's allies in Congress have already moved to stymie the licence renewal applications of at least 54 radio stations operated by the Catholic Media Network. Securities regulators, meanwhile, have revoked the licence of Rappler, a popular and pioneering news website.

All these media groups have sparred with Mr Duterte over his brutal war on drugs, pro-China policies, off-the-cuff sexist remarks and persecution of political rivals.

Mr Duterte, who has admitted to going after those media organisations for attacking "below the belt", also has a ready band of warriors to do battle on his behalf.

Mr Howie Severino, vice-president at GMA Network, pointed to pro-Duterte bloggers and so-called influencers who have been mobilising their followers to harass their anti-Duterte counterparts as well as the President's critics, often with unvetted information, assumptions and misleading data.

At least three of these bloggers with followers in excess of one million have been appointed to key government posts in charge of information dissemination.

But for Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa, it is not just Mr Duterte that threatens Philippine journalism.

Traditional media groups were choking, she said, because of the "impunity of Facebook and Google", which now take 85 per cent of online ad revenues in the Philippines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline 'Double trouble for Philippine media'. Print Edition | Subscribe