A QUICK scan of media coverage shows that House Speaker Martin Romualdez has been consistently in news headlines. News follows him everywhere, reporting his plans to talk with executives of oil companies to address price hikes, his vows to work harder amid his high survey rating, and a statement of sympathy with the people of quake-stricken Morocco.
But in the past two months, two stories involving Romualdez did not make it to the mainstream and most local news. Reported in international news outlets, the first involved allegations that Romualdez, who is also President Marcos's cousin, has been involved in a bribery case in the United States. The second had to do with a huge fund which he allegedly donated to Harvard University to support a Tagalog course. Only a few online news accounts picked up the two stories, with some journalists reporting these in their own blogs.
Is the media holding back on critical coverage of Romualdez? Is Romualdez above media scrutiny, as reports on him tend to sound like PR stories?
What's the Story
$1-million donation to Harvard?
On August 29, an exclusive report by The FilAm, an online magazine based in the United States and Inquirer.net's news partner, reported that Romualdez donated $1 million to Harvard to fund a Tagalog course. CMFR checked the FilAm report and saw a notice that said the article had been deactivated on Inquirer.net "by order of the owners."
On September 3, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) reported that Inquirer.net took down its own story on Romualdez, noting that the said report was "up for several hours and getting multiple comments" before it was taken down. Romualdez is among the wealthiest members of Congress with a total net worth of PHP 475 million in 2016.
On the same day, Rappler published PCIJ's story. CNN Philippines, reporting the news about the first Harvard instructor for a Tagalog course, mentioned that Inquirer.net took down its story on Romualdez funding the course on September 6. It was also cited by VERA Files on September 7.
On September 15. The Harvard Crimson, Harvard's daily newspaper, reported that Romualdez's donation was, in fact, $2 million, according to an anonymous source. Rene Ciria Cruz, US editor of Inquirer.net, wrote in an email to The Crimson that he resigned from his position as a result of the article takedown.
Philstar.com and Rappler published reports carrying Harvard Crimson's story, along with statements from press freedom advocates and martial law victims and advocates on September 18 and 19, respectively.
On another front, international media outlet Bloomberg reported on July 31 that Romualdez is at the center of a bribery case in the United States between Japanese billionaire Kazuo Okada and his son over ownership of Okada Casino Resort Manila. This was republished by The Japan Times on August 1. The same Harvard Crimson article on Romualdez' donation for the Tagalog course also noted Romualdez' implication in US litigation over the Manila casino.
Winnie Monsod, economist and UP Professor Emeritus at the University of the Philippines School of Economics, in her blog commended Bravo Philippines, an online news site, for being the sole local news account that gave "light in the Okada blackout." On August 18, another journalist, Jarius Bondoc, reported on the bribery allegation on his own website. Bondoc is a columnist for Philippine Star, Pilipino Star Ngayon, and hosts on DWIZ 882.
Media accounts said that Romualdez did not respond on both issues when reached for his comment.
What The Reports Got Right
The following reports provided factual context and circumstances surrounding the two issues: both of which are public interest.
PCIJ and The FilAm reported that Harvard alumni who said they were "suspicious" were told not to share the information. Neither article mentioned who gave them this instruction.
Both reports also cited Ruben Carranza, former commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, who said that it would be wrong for Harvard to accept donations from the family of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
PCIJ also pointed to Inquirer's connection to Romualdez: the CEO of the Inquirer Group of Companies, Sandy Prieto Romualdez, is married to the Speaker's brother, Philip. PCIJ reviewed other cases of the media taking down their stories, such as Inquirer.net's reports on the rape case of actress Pepsi Paloma in 2018, Philstar.com's report on businessman Wilfredo Keng in 2019, and Philstar.com's report on Senator Francis Tolentino's access to rare COVID-19 test kits in 2020.
It duly noted the engagement of Romualdez' family members in the media industry: that Speaker Romualdez has become a key player in the media industry following a joint venture agreement between ABS-CBN and his Prime Media Holdings. The Romualdez family also owns the national broadsheet Manila Standard and the Journal Group of Publications, which includes tabloids People's Journal and People's Tonight, among others.
Meanwhile, on the issue of the bribery case, Bravo Philippines correctly reviewed Romualdez's "friends" and connections, pointing out that Romualdez is the cousin of President Marcos Jr. Its report said "but no one would like to make an official comment on the story."
Why Is This Important
Media reporting on the takedown of stories are right to do so as these indicate pressures that the public should know about.
Journalists should report on the business interests and activities of public officials, as these may involve all kinds of conflicts of interests. In the same light, their wealth should also be a public matter; including donations made either for charity or other worthy purposes. The wealth and assets of every public official are also open to media scrutiny, thus the legal requirement to make public their Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN).
Media reports on take down stories involve pressures on ownership, also shedding light on media independence and autonomy. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines on September 17 said in a statement: "That the takedown was met with little outcry or follow-up also points to the chill that has pervaded the media community in recent years."
In CMFR's In Medias Res, Luis Teodoro who until his death early this year was deputy editor of the Philippine Journalism Review Reports (PJRR) wrote: "media ownership generates a fundamental conflict between the business and political interests that are in control of the dominant press and media, and the right of the people to accurate and fair information."
That reality aside, it is the duty of journalists to keep an eye on such conflicts, especially if the main personality involved is the House Speaker and the President's cousin. Ignoring these stories would be a fundamental failure of the obligation to provide the public with relevant information and news about those in power.
Owners do determine what news their media enterprises will disseminate. It is appropriate however for other media to report on these matters. Journalistic silence relegate such news to the private and personal interests rather than matters the people have a right to know. The latter wins over the desire of politicians to keep these facts to themselves.