THE President last week seemed almost resentful as he played down the recognition given by TIME magazine to Maria Ressa, the founder of Rappler, an online news site that has been critical of his administration.
The international news magazine had honored Ressa last week, along with slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, jailed Burmese journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo of Reuters and the Capital Gazette in Maryland as guardians of the truth by naming them Person of the Year.
In a mix of Filipino and English, Duterte alluded to Ressa by saying “a time of – a time of the – woman of the century and all. You can have it all.”
But whether the President likes it or not, the award given to the Rappler executive was a public relations black eye—and one that could have been easily avoided by tolerance and self-restraint.
Sadly, these qualities were not in play when the administration used its regulatory bodies to go after Rappler.
First, the Securities and Exchange Commission sought to revoke Rappler’s license to operate in January over questions about its foreign ownership. The move was immediately denounced as an attack on free speech by journalists, human rights groups and lawmakers and challenged in court.
When this obvious ploy to silence a critical news outlet failed, the Bureau of Internal Revenue filed a tax evasion case against Rappler Holdings, Ressa and the company’s treasurer, James Bitanga in March, for allegedly attempting to evade tax payments and failing to provide accurate information on its income tax and value-added tax returns for 2015.
The President has also barred Ressa and Rappler’s Palace reporter from entering the Malacañang complex.
The Palace has disavowed any role in the lawsuits against Rappler, but this claim rings hollow amid the President’s continuous rants against the online news outlet.
Have these verbal attacks and legal action against Rappler worked to the administration’s advantage? One would think not, given the high profile that the TIME Magazine Person of the Year award brings to the Philippine press situation.
Whoever advised the President to go after Rappler with hammer and tongs did Mr. Duterte a huge disservice. Perhaps they did so to curry favor—or they truly believed that persecuting critics is the way to go in a democracy. Or perhaps they all just had thin skins.
But instead of silencing a critical voice, they have given the online news outlet a platform and a megaphone with which to fight back. Surely, this is a prime example of the law of unintended consequences at work. This consequence wasn’t difficult to foresee, however. All it took was a level head to realize that it is the Office of the President that has the bully pulpit, and that the President need not look small, petty and mean to get his message across.