John Nery makes a good point in his Inquirer piece today where he writes, that the decision of the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to shutter Rappler for offenses against laws limiting foreign ownership of media companies is “grossly disproportionate” when given the bigger context of “press freedom”. But Rappler is a news organisation that banked on not much anything loftier than popular appeal. Maria Ressa herself spent much of her stint as its CEO drumming up support (both financial and readership) on the back of social media clout. As such, while the “press freedom” card is a valid one, that card was played once too many by Ressa — for that matter, by the entire media industry — for the wrong reasons for too long.
Indeed, the very criticism mainstream media attracts overall revolves around Filipinos’ profound cynicism over the lofty pedestal media had been set upon. The now-widespread belief that corporate media had chosen to abuse “press freedom” rather than wield it for the greater good had been growing over the last 30 years and has reached its crescendo today. Rappler was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Over its five-year existence since it bubbled up from the muck in 2012 (in time to weaponise itself for the battle to crush the late Chief Justice Renato Corona), it managed to singlehandedly give the Philippine news media industry (then already struggling for relevance and credibility) an even badder name. Its “innovations” in the pracitce of journalism — being “online only”, styling its writers as “online journalists”, calling itself a “social news network”, and making itself the news then reporting about itself — rubbed the mainstream old school the wrong way.
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Today, as this “media crisis” unfolds, old journo stalwarts would, of course, deny that they grudgingly watched as the hipster Rapplerettes stomped all over their orthodoxy over the last five years. Seeing that they are being emotionally-blackmailed to “stand with Rappler” now makes their tepid response to the demise of the New Kid understandable. But to the broader public, that Cold War Era “press freedom” thing is just plain obsolete.
If I were to manage the PR blitz Rappler needs to mount to keep its head above the torrent of bad press and bad “engagement” already raging across the Internet, I’d junk the “press freedom” angle. Using the “press freedom” mantra will not convert the unevangelised and will, instead, further polarise opinion. All it will do is escalate the singing of the Yellowtards’ inbred choir to a shrill pitch and further enrage (or, worse, merely amuse) the unconverted.
As Ben Kritz tweeted earlier, “Anybody connected with Rappler could take to the web with a blog and say whatever they like, and govt would never touch them. That’s freedom of speech.” Indeed, beyond Rappler exists an entire ecosystem of Opposition “social justice warriors” tapping away tweets and Facebook posts from their two thousand-dollar Apple devices at the corner Starbucks cafe. The whole notion that the Rappler crackdown is an “assault on freedom” is therefore absolute nonsense. The fact is (scraping off the annoying layer of shrill slogans being fielded by “activists”), the troubles Rappler suffers today is more an outcome of its CEO’s negligence.
Ensuring compliance to regulation is a basic housekeeping function of any business organisation’s core administration. Rappler apologists are doing the equivalent of complaining about a curtailment of their right to drive after being caught speeding. Non sequitur. The activist “cause” is not on the same wavelength as the underlying principles at stake. Cops aren’t particularly sympathetic to such appeals when the complainant is an adolescent driver on a probationary license. In the case of Rappler, the recklessness it exhibited as an adolescent news organisation is fully on record — though perhaps this “evidence” of teenage angst will disappear once the plug is pulled. Thus, the curious case that is the shut down of Rappler by the SEC — there is no evidence used to wrap tinapa.
The adults amongst Rappler‘s supporters should leave the “press freedom” angle to the kiddies and focus on fixing the real problem. Perhaps start with re-evaluating Ressa’s role as CEO. She obviously ran her “social news network” aground. CEO’s are the easiest employees to fire. There are people within the Rappler family, after all, who do real work, and their jobs may, to be fair, be worth saving. For that, you need a real CEO at the helm to manage his or her organisation through this crisis. Social media caricatures like Ressa are simply not up to that task.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.