One of the few concrete policy promises Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. made during his campaign for the Presidency of these isles of forgetfulness was to make rice available at P20 per kilo.
The average price of a kilo of the staple was more than twice P20 at P41.68 in 2020, and is rising as the inflation rate surges. Depending on its quality, the retail price of rice is currently from a low of P35 to a high of P60 per kilo or even higher.
Rice is at the core of every Filipino meal, and its cost is crucial to whether a family can so stay within its budget as to afford medical care, housing, education for its children, and other essentials. The Marcos Junior promise was therefore enthusiastically received by his followers and most likely helped swing who knows how many votes in his favor.
With his proclamation as the next Philippine President, some of the media have looked into whether he can make good on that promise. What they established was not only the complexity of the issue, but also Marcos Junior’s limited understanding of it. In addition, however, their looking into it was a welcome sign that at least some of the more independent media organizations and practitioners are determined not only to examine the wisdom or lack of it, not only of the campaign promises of Marcos and company, but also their conduct of the affairs of government in the six long, long, long years ahead and to hold them to account.
Their reports on Marcos’ “rice-at-P20-a- kilo” promise are illustrative of the kind of accurate, detailed, and analytical enterprise reporting that monitoring every administration, and most specially the performance of a problematic and worrisome national leadership, demands. They thus reported the views of farmers’ and other groups, whose leaders pointed out that, among other constraints, Marcos’ making good on his promise would first of all require the further lowering of the price of palay (unmilled rice) to levels that would further impoverish poor farmers.
The only way that the retail price of rice could be reduced, the leaders of farmers’ groups told the media, and through them the public, is to increase the country’s rice productivity. But the current system of land tenancy, and the Duterte policy of importing rice which has kept palay farm gate prices low, have discouraged farmers. Throughout his 30 years in government (as governor, congressman, and senator), they continued, Marcos Jr. never looked into addressing these and other agricultural issues.
Former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Director General Cielito Habito agreed with farmers’ groups when he weighed in on the problem. He told the media that “the farm gate price of unmilled palay is about half the retail price of milled rice, given milling recovery efficiency, and costs of milling, transport, and logistics through the supply chain.”
That means that Marcos’ making good on his campaign promise would require lowering farm gate palay prices to about P10 a kilo, or way below farmers’ production costs. In his column in a Manila broadsheet, Habito also described Marcos Junior as “confused and out of touch.” Marcos, he continued, is helping neither farmers nor consumers, and has the makings of “a dangerous leader.”
In this instance, the media provided the information consumers need on the issue. But as encouraging as this example of media enterprise is, the Duterte regime has been demonstrating during the past six years that such initiatives could always be frustrated through several means.
It could be as simple as barring reporters from covering public events, or, as Marcos Junior’s spokesperson did on May 11, by refusing to answer questions from journalists, and just ignoring them. Marcos himself has waved away journalists who wanted to interview him, thus establishing what could be a policy contrary to the democratic imperative of government transparency.
President Rodrigo Duterte has prevented some journalists from covering events in which he was present. He shut down ABS-CBN’s free radio and TV services and caused the cancellation of Rappler’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) registration. He did not file libel complaints against journalists, but he encouraged, through his frequent criticism of certain media organizations and their staff, other individuals, among them government officials, to lodge libel suits against this or that journalist.
The libel law and the libel provisions in the 2012 Cyber Crime Prevention Act, which make libel a criminal offense have been especially problematic for free expression and press freedom. Media advocacy groups and organizations, individual journalists, human rights defenders, and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) have been campaigning for the decriminalization of libel for decades. But instead of reviewing the libel law that the United Nations described in 2011 as “excessive,” Congress included it in the Cyber Crime Prevention Act provisions that even more harshly penalize libel when found to have been committed through any computer-mediated platform such as cell phones and online news sites.
The failure despite the campaign of the last 30 years to decriminalize libel shows how difficult it has been to move Congress into doing so, and has led many opponents of libel as a criminal offense to conclude that it just cannot happen. But a promise to work for it in the Senate has come from an unlikely source: broadcaster and incoming Senator Raffy Tulfo.
His brother, columnist Ramon Tulfo, did not protest a Manila court’s 2020 conviction for cyber libel of Rappler CEO and editor Maria Ressa and the online news site’s researcher Reynaldo Santos because, he said then, they “besmirched a private individual’s good name.” He thereby implied that their possible imprisonment, should a higher court uphold their conviction, would be justified. But when interviewed in the aftermath of his arrest last May 19 on the same charge, Tulfo seemed to have realized how extreme is the penalty of imprisonment for libel in the Philippines.
Tulfo in effect agreed with those groups and individuals who have been campaigning for the decriminalization of libel. He announced his support for his brother Raffy’s declared intention to file a bill that would do so, and which would make libel a civil rather than a criminal offense.
Both Tulfos were presumably referring not only to the Cyber Crime Prevention Act of 2012 but also to libel as defined and penalized with imprisonment in Article 352 of the Revised Penal Code. If incoming Senator Raffy Tulfo does file such a bill and it passes Congress, it would remove a decades-old threat to press freedom and encourage independent journalists and media organizations to closely monitor and hold to account the incoming Marcos II administration.
The distinct possibility that the brothers Tulfo have been moved to favor the decriminalization of libel out of self-interest — both have been the targets of numerous libel suits — is immaterial. Not only against them and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa, but against many other journalists as well have the libel laws been used with the aim of intimidating and silencing them. One can only wish that with incoming Senator Raffy Tulfo as advocate, and given his alliance with the members of the “super majority” in Congress, criminal libel could eventually be a thing of the past.
Hopefully, however, the incoming Senator’s pledge to file a bill limiting the penalties for libel to civil liabilities like fines will not end up among such empty promises as that of lowering the price of rice to P20 per kilo.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).