Unchecked media moguls threaten info literacy, press autonomy — journos

Media observers highlighted the importance of keeping media owners accountable as VERA Files and the Global Media Registry (GMR) presented the updated Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) database for the Philippines on Tuesday, May 14.

Launched by the German section of the international human rights organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF Germany) in 2015, the MOM lists the owners of mass media outlets from across the world.

The database aims to highlight the risks of media ownership concentration on the “social and political diversity” of media content.

The local version is written and updated by non-profit media VERA Files, which partnered with RSF Germany last 2016 for the inaugural MOM-PH database.

VERA Files looked into the individual and company ownership of more than 40 Philippine media outlets from TV, radio, print and online.

The UP College of Mass Communication hosted the public presentation of the updated Media Ownership Monitoring Database on May 14. Photo by Richardson Tubo

Among their key observations was the concentration of local media ownership to a few “intergenerational” families: the Lopezes of ABS-CBN, Belmontes of the Philippine Star, Elizaldes of the Manila Broadcasting Company, and Prietos of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI).

The report also found out that big businesses dominate the media landscape, among them GMA Network, Inc., which is now the leading broadcasting company in revenue and audience shares following ABS-CBN’s shutdown during the Duterte administration in 2020.

Read: When the Ship Sank: Aftermath of the ABS-CBN Shutdown

In her keynote address, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility executive director Melinda Quintos de Jesus emphasized  how the owners of these media giants could impede public information literacy. 

“[An] unchecked media mogul re-leads to the ironic situation of so much news that leaves a public ignorant of significant developments, of issues that affect their way of life from day to day, of being fed information about what is going on lacking in context, even factual accuracy,” De Jesus said.

In 2021, a Social Weather Stations survey showed that 51% of Filipinos struggle to spot fake news on TV, radio and social media. Additionally, a 2017 study revealed that the Philippines ranked third among 38 countries “most ignorant” on key issues.

Besides the control of information flow, media moguls’ interests also warp the press’s ability to pursue stories independently, De Jesus underscored as she pressed for further research on media ownership.

The journalists also stressed how, despite being mandated by law to disclose their business ownership structures, media owners remain “almost invisible” under the “convoluted” layers of corporations.

According to VERA Files President Ellen Tordesillas, the key players that are not listed on paper as owners or shareholders of media outlets remain to be an “open secret” in the industry.

“Like the ownership of Ramon Ang of CNN Philippines … Everybody knows that. Mahirap on paper kasi minsan mga eight layers bago mo matumbok [‘yung individual owner],” Tordesillas said.

For example, business tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan’s Hastings Holdings Inc. owns 50% the Philippine Star. The said holdings company is under MediaQuest, which is the parent company of the television station TV5 and has controls shares in the broadsheet BusinessWorld.

His ownership in the Prieto-led PDI, meanwhile, can be traced back to a separate holding company that has 6.36% shares in the newspaper.

Among the other updates in the latest database include incumbent House Speaker Martin Romualdez’s ties to ABS-CBN through Prime Media Holdings Inc., which owns AM radio station DWPM Radyo 630 and cable news channel TeleRadyo Serbisyo.

It also took note of Kingdom of Jesus Christ leader Apollo Quiboloy’s “honorary chairmanship” of Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI).

University of the Philippines (UP) Journalism Department Chair Kara David also brought up the impact of social media on news production, highlighting how the coverage of certain stories becomes “inevitable” because of online platforms. 

Actually nagpapasalamat kami [journalists] that there is social media right now. Because the stories that our bosses do not want us to publish, we are forced to publish because it has already gone viral,” David said.

Amid such threats to information accessibility and press autonomy, De Jesus still hopes that a new business model anchored on “fundamental values” will soon emerge.

“There’s going to be a business model that’s gonna come out of this wild, wild period in which we find ourselves. And that business model is still going to depend on the fundamentals: accuracy, … freedom, independence, truth, stewardship,” she said.

When CNN Philippines ceased operations last February due to financial losses, the UP Department of Broadcast Communication released a statement calling for a “more sustainable and ethical” business model for media outlets, instead of centering on the pursuit of profit.

On calls for ownership accountability, De Jesus urged the public to remain informed and participate in raising questions of integrity.

“[W]e will never get the media that we have been working so hard to build up … without the audience supporting this process,” she said.