Muzzling the media

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Greg B. Macabenta

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The shutdown of online media outfit, Rappler, reminds me of a sequence in the film, Walking Tall, the biopic about Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser. Stymied by an uncooperative judge, Pusser invoked a little-known provision in the city statutes, giving him authority to determine where to place the judge’s office. Pusser assigned the judge to the men’s room. Not surprisingly, the latter became very cooperative.

The lesson here is obvious: Don’t fight city hall. You can’t win — at least, that’s what conventional wisdom says.

In the case of Rappler — as well as other media organizations — the lesson is, don’t fight Malacañang. The Securities and Exchange Commission will get you — unless elements of the Philippine National Police knock on your door first (I understand tokhang is back).

The bleeding hearts protesting the use by the SEC of a “technicality” in shutting down Rappler’s operation may have forgotten the oft-used warning, “Those who throw stones should not live in technically vulnerable glass houses.”

The folks putting out Rappler probably knew from the outset that they were taking risks with their kind of investigative reporting. But they took their risks, nonetheless. Now, they must take their hits.


But while their Web site may have been ordered closed, that doesn’t mean it’s time for them to ride off into the sunset. Aside from recourse to the courts, they still have their best assets — themselves.

Unlike the hapless judge in the Walking Tall tale, committed and crusading journalists don’t need an office or the official sanction of government authorities to pursue their mission. They only need their head, heart and hand.

If Maria Ressa and her team haven’t lost their fighting spirit yet, they don’t need the SEC to give them the go-signal to proceed with their mission. In fact, they don’t need a Web site or investors.

They can continue writing their investigative pieces and posting their output on social media till Presidential spokesman Harry Roque turns blue in the face from calling their work fake news.

But that is where, with due respect, they should draw line.

Indeed, there is a thin line between sensationalism and objective but hard-hitting journalism. Without meaning to refer to Rappler, I have seen too many instances when ostensibly reputable media have crossed the line into sensationalism and even outright masturbation of the news.

While I sympathize with Ressa and the writers of Rappler, as well as with the media organizations that are loudly condemning the threat to press freedom, I think they should have watched the movie, Walking Tall, before they mounted their laudable but audacious venture. They were bound to be consigned to a virtual restroom, sooner or later, or be deposited in the trash bin.

Crusading journalists cannot expect any quarters from those whose lucrative lives they jeopardize.

According to a CNN report, the Philippines is one of the most hazardous countries for journalists, next only to Syria and Iraq, both of which happen to be war zones.

My nephew, Conrad de Quiros, used to tell me (when he was still actively writing his newspaper column, before he had a stroke) that Manila-based journalists were not usually the targets of hit squads, just members of the provincial press. Nonetheless, I advised him not to push his luck.

I’ve been told as much by relatives and friends who fear that I may be too critical of sensitive individuals who are in power. But that is an occupational hazard that one must be prepared to face — otherwise, flipping burgers would be a much safer trade.

During the repressive years of the Marcos dictatorship, the late Joe Burgos published the courageously anti-government paper, We Forum and Malaya. Only by the Grace of God was Burgos spared from being salvaged, although the same cannot be said about his son, Jonas.

Jonas Burgos, an activist, was reportedly abducted by the military and was never heard from.

That may say something about the unlamented Marcos government. It probably had the fear of God in some cases, such as that of Joe Burgos. Jonas Burgos disappeared during the tenure of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Long before the advent of social media, the banner of the “mosquito press” (called thus for the relentlessness and fearlessness of their sting) was also held high by college publications, like the Philippine Collegian of the University of the Philippines.

Underground journalists also passed on mimeographed newsletters from hand to hand, to the consternation of the martial law censors. The Marcos-controlled TV and radio networks, as well as the broadsheets and tabloids in the Philippines and in the United States, were often scooped by the guerrilla media.

In the US, the late Alex Esclamado had to borrow from every available wallet in sight to keep his anti-Marcos Philippine News in print, having been deprived of advertising revenues by Malacañang fiat. In desperation, the Marcos minions offered Esclamado $12 million to sell his paper. He refused and fought on.

Alex Esclamado never missed a single issue of his weekly paper, although that left him very deep in debt. For his efforts, he was conferred the Philippine Legion of Honor by President Cory Aquino.

In Spain, in 1895, a hardy group of young Filipinos, Los Indios Bravos, published, La Solidaridad, a weekly newspaper, as the spearhead of the propaganda movement, dedicated to pushing for reforms by the Spanish colonial government in the Philippines. They risked the ire of the Spanish government but they proceeded, nonetheless. For their courage, their names have been enshrined in the pantheon of the nation’s heroes.

The first editor of the Soli, as it was referred to for short, was Graciano Lopez Jaena. He was subsequently replaced by Marcelo H. del Pilar. Unfortunately, the publication had to close down due to lack of funds.

Earlier, Jose P. Rizal pursued the crusade for reforms with his two novels, Mi Ultimo Adios and El Filibusterismo. Rizal published his books with borrowed funds.

Of course, we all know what happened to Rizal. Worse than what the SEC has done to Rappler. Much worse.

Let’s all pray that the Rappler team will only have to deal with the SEC and not with tokhang.


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.