The controversy arising from the decision of the Securities and Exchange Commission to revoke the registration of Rappler is all everyone can talk about right now. We at Mindavote have also been getting our share of questions from our readers regarding our take on the whole thing.
But before we get into that, let’s first lay down the facts.
One, there is a constitutional provision that prohibits any sort of foreign ownership in media companies. Two, Rappler is a media company. And three, Rappler accepted foreign money. While everyone agrees on the first two, the last one is more contentious.
According to the SEC the money received by Rappler represents ownership and is therefore illegal. Thus their decision to revoke their registration.
Rappler, for its part, argues that the foreign funds, passing as it did through a hybrid financial instrument known as Philippine Depositary Receipts, is merely an investment and does not carry with it any of the rights and privileges of ownership, and is therefore exempt from the constitutional prohibition.
One way we can fully understand the issue is by looking into the constitution itself, specifically the provision that prohibits foreign ownership in media companies. Art. XVI, Sec.11 states that “The ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations, cooperatives or associations, wholly-owned and managed by such citizens.”
Rappler, as we stated earlier, insists that the foreign funds they received does not violate the constitution because it never gave their investors “ownership and management” rights.
But while this may be true, it can also be argued that the prohibition was placed in the constitution not simply to be a guide for the ownership structure of individual media companies like Rappler. But, to a much larger extent, as a means to protect the entire media industry from foreign influence.
Using Maria Ressa’s own analogy of a horse race, we see that using foreign funds – whether as an ownership stake or merely as a bet – can allow what would otherwise be an unqualified animal to participate, thus putting the integrity of the entire race in question.
Furthermore, while bets in a race do not affect which horse runs or not, in the case of Rappler and their foreign funders, Ressa herself admitted that the money was crucial in helping to keep Rappler in operation.
This means that even if we accept Ressa’s narrow interpretation of the law and agree that these foreigners had no say in how Rappler was run, they cannot escape the fact that the mere act of helping Rappler stay afloat with their investments must have had an effect on the Philippine media industry. Without foreign funding, there might not have been a Rappler, and this invariably would have changed not just the media industry, but the entire socio-political landscape of the country.
Take the case, for example, of the impeachment of Chief Justice Antonio Corona. It is widely acknowledged that it was Rappler’s coverage that helped sway public opinion against the former chief magistrate.
Then there is the bloated numbers of the alleged extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration. Again, Rappler played a hand in disseminating this misinformation.
Also the perception that there is a vast online army of “Pro Duterte trolls and bots” was also perpetuated by Rappler. And behind all these are their enablers, the investors – Filipino and foreign – who gave them money.