Ressa’s reckless ‘rappling’ (Updated)

“Rappler”, a portmanteau word coined from “rap” and “ripple”, is the name of a fledgling web site that describes itself as a “a social news network where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change”, and whose team promises “uncompromised journalism that—hopefully—inspires smart conversations and ignites a thirst for change”. Such statements betoken the hand of its CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa, a veteran journalist and the former chief of the News and Current Affairs Division of ABS-CBN, where her significant contributions included the citizen journalism campaign “Boto Mo iPatrol Mo”. If Ressa’s recent behavior is any indication, however, Rappler may not so much stimulate dialogue as stifle it. Although silence, in all fairness, is certainly an example of change in our generally disorderly democracy, is this the kind of change that is warranted?

Blogger Katrina Stuart Santiago had earlier published “Going to the dogs“, in which she stated her opinion on the discussion generated by a heated dispute between Rappler and the University of Santo Tomas (UST)—a dispute that was caused by a controversial story written by Rappler editor-at-large Marites Dañguilan-Vitug. Over the course of the post, Santiago raised what I believe to be important questions regarding the brave new world of online media and the directions that public discourse on such media needs—and has yet—to take. When said post was brought to Ressa’s attention via a Twitter update, however, Ressa did not only take exception to Santiago’s view that Rappler revealed a pro-administration bias by featuring the recently launched, meme-friendly tourism campaign, “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” without investigating its costs, among others. In addition, Ressa pulled rank as a professional journalist and proceeded to imply that Santiago was guilty of libel: reckless moves that are utterly injurious to the digital citizenship that Ressa purports to be a passionate advocate of.

Surely someone of Ressa’s stature needs no reminding that, in these islands, libel has all too often been used as a weapon with which to harass media workers—a notorious wielder is former First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, who, according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), filed more than 50 cases against 46 journalists starting in 2003, before electing to drop all charges in 2007 as a putative gesture of peace toward the press—including her own Rappler colleague Vitug.  More to the point, surely someone of Ressa’s stature needs no reminding that it behooves one to fully comprehend a text before rapping out statements rippling with ire: Ressa was offended—misguidedly so—by Santiago’s supposed suggestion that Rappler had been paid to do a story on “It’s More Fun in the Philippines”, when in fact Santiago’s statement was, “Rappler has quietly revealed itself to be about helping out government instead of being a critical voice that at the very least asks: how much was paid [to BBDO Guerrero, the advertising agency behind] the campaign and is it worth it? I guess no questions like that for ‘uncompromised journalism’ now tagging itself as ‘citizen journalism’.”

Whether one agrees with Santiago’s attribution of bias—my own (perhaps potentially libelous) guess would be that Rappler was motivated primarily, if not exclusively, by a desire to drive up site traffic—this unfortunate episode bodes ill not only for the state of literacy in the country, but also for the future of the local mediascape. Can intelligent conversations and positive social changes possibly take place in an environment populated by denizens who, cleaving to Ressa’s inglorious example, refuse to read well, bristle at the slightest expression of disapproval, reject calls to become self-reflexive and accountable, and betray no qualms about ascribing malice to parties with whom they disagree?

The situation at hand becomes particularly interesting when one considers it vis-à-vis a recent piece by Ressa, in which she serves up the high “power-distance index” (PDI) of the Philippines as the reason that members of the intelligence community did not object to President Aquino’s initiation of countermeasures against a terrorist threat of questionable credibility. The PDI is a measure of the extent to which the less powerful in a given society accept and expect the unequal distribution of power. (It may be worth remarking that Ressa fails to contextualize the PDI within the larger theory of the dimensions of national culture formulated by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, or to acknowledge that said theory, in spite of its usefulness and influence, is hardly the last word in the study of culture.) Ressa asserts that the PDI of the country “helps explain why Filipinos have such respect for authority; why people ‘know their place;’ why true debate in an organization rarely happens if it includes the boss”.

While Ressa’s conclusion to her article seems to show that she frowns on the character of the relationships that a high PDI tends to produce—she warns those in authority that they need to “gather information and guard even more against [their] knee-jerk reactions and biases” because their subordinates “will rarely contradict [them]—even if [they’re] wrong”—Ressa herself appears to be the best illustration of the Philippine PDI, or, more accurately, what happens when heretofore unchallenged PDI assumptions are suddenly breached.

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Update (16 Jan 2011; 10:29 PM GMT +8): Angela Stuart Santiago believes that a “public apology via social media is in order” but doesn’t know if Ressa is up to it. Read her take in “Calling out Ressa“.

‘A mere aberration’

PGMA at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo delivers a speech at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast on November 26, 2009.

Based on several news reports, the death toll for the Ampatuan Massacre (also referred to as the “Maguinanao Massacre”) has risen from 57 to 64, though authorities have dismissed the new figure, saying that they had stopped the excavations yesterday.

It is unknown when the additional bodies were uncovered—or, as has been remarked, if these are in fact part of the current crime being investigated, considering that Mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., the alleged mastermind, is known to be a “hatchet man” (“chainsaw man” would not be inappropriate)—but the gruesome details remain the same: a group consisting of several women, among them lawyers and at least 30 media workers, set off in a convoy of six vehicles from Buluan on the morning of November 23, Monday, to witness the proxy filing of the certificate of candidacy of gubernatorial hopeful Ishmael Mangudadatu at the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) office in Shariff Aguak. The group had previously made separate requests to the army and to the police for a security escort, but had been turned down. The convoy, along with a carful of innocent motorists, was stopped by armed men, who, led by Mayor Ampatuan, Jr., abducted, tortured, and killed most of the members of the group, in one stroke shattering the traditional shields of the powerless.

No cases of beheading or rape, which were earlier alleged, have been mentioned by investigators yet, though practically all the women were sexually mutilated. A backhoe emblazoned with the legend, “Property of the province of Maguindanao – Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr.”, which had been dispatched on a project some weeks before, was used to crush the vehicles and dig mass graves for the victims, some of whom were buried alive. (The operator of the machine is the subject of a manhunt.) Upon hearing that the military was approaching, the militiamen immediately fled, leaving the cover-up work undone, but the entire atrocity reportedly took little more than an hour to carry out.

Local and international organizations, as well as governments around the world, have condemned the massacre—a barbarity that could very well be, and hopefully is, the nadir of a political culture predicated on guns, goons, and gold—as a crime against humanity, and demanded the swift dispensation of justice. Public anger and despair at the murders continue to intensify, with various sectors holding vigils or rallies.

In view of the universal outrage at the carnage, it is inexplicable, unacceptable, and unconscionable that the government has been unwilling or unable to move quickly and decisively against the perpetrators, instead resorting to dissemblance, diminishment, and delay, perhaps out of the belief that people will fall victim to amnesia after having vented their spleens, as they have in the wake of other tragedies, or in the morbid expectation that an exponentially more horrific, and hence potentially more mediagenic, catastrophe will take place.

In dealing with the Ampatuan clan, which has enjoyed a close relationship with the current administration, the government has had its kid gloves firmly on from day one, resulting in strange contortions of rhetoric and action that would be funny under other circumstances. Malacañang conspicuously understated the massacre as “an incident between two families in Mindanao” with which it had nothing to do. Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Ronaldo Puno downplayed the expulsion of the Ampatuans from the ruling party by chairman Gilbert Teodoro as an expression of justified, but ultimately personal, outrage. For his part, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita could only muster an oblique plea, saying, “It definitely would help if, those who feel that they are already being considered as suspects, for them to turn themselves in and cooperate with the law enforcement agencies.”

The police have also said that the backhoe and witness accounts are insufficient evidence. Meanwhile, the bodies are fast deteriorating, as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has not even used lime to preserve them.

Although Ampatuan, Jr. has been charged and is now in custody, Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina was recorded as having backtracked from using the term “suspect”, and officials actually waited for the mayor to surrender last November 26, Thursday, instead of taking the initiative and hauling him in for questioning. (Department of Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera stressed that he was arrested.) And despite finally being tagged as the primary suspect, Ampatuan, Jr. was not handcuffed as he was brought to General Santos for an inquest, and then to Manila for detention.

Notwithstanding the self-professed exultance of the Palace at the news that the mayor was in custody, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo made a point of asserting that the order to nab Ampatuan, Jr. was not issued by the President, who will remain friends with the Ampatuans.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself did not even make a statement until two days after the crime, on November 25, Wednesday—and a most perfunctory statement at that:

Her speech at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast the following day, which she had designated as a National Day of Prayer and Mourning for the victims, was not a significant improvement, crammed as it was with vague and passive gestures toward God and justice.

It was perhaps the voluble—not to mention reliably inane—Press Secretary Cerge Remonde who, inadvertently or otherwise, best summed up the attitude of the present dispensation toward the Ampatuan massacre. On November 27, Remonde declared that, “It is said that the incident has few [precedents] in brutality, and for this we are condemned by the whole world. But let me assure the nation and the rest of the world that the killing of at least 57 people, including lawyers and media men, is a mere aberration” (emphasis added).

This is a poisonous suggestion that must be denounced in the strongest possible terms. By inserting the slaughter of 64 people into a space of “mere aberrations”, Remonde is attempting to disengage the government from its responsibilities, and worse, to accelerate the process of forgetting, thus displaying a species of impunity no less dangerous than that of the Ampatuans. As tantalizing as it is to believe that the Ampatuan massacre is an event so terrible that it could not have been prevented, and, anyway, will never happen again—who would not want to believe this, after all?—the fundamental impulse behind it, as a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial points out, should be shocking precisely because it is hardly aberrant:

When unmarked, black-tinted SUVs wang-wang their insolent way through a city’s roads, when government officials who have no other source of income except access to public funds ostentatiously purchase the most expensive luxury items, when public servants swagger into a room with dozens of bodyguards, we recognize the seeds of future massacres.

“Should be shocking”, that is, unless one is a callous, charter-change monomaniac like Carmen Pedrosa, who readily exonerates the Arroyo regime so as to be able to annex the tragedy for her cause.

Speaking of disturbing familiarity, it is urgently necessary, I think, that a particular aspect of the massacre be examined more closely. It may be that the militiamen who committed the murders were marching to the tune of a warlord who could be described as “psychopathic”, “sadistic”, or “monstrous”, but what are the odds that nearly all of them were psychopathic, sadistic monsters? (Psychopathy, in the clinical, rather than the popular, sense, is estimated to manifest itself in only 1% of the population, though researchers have suggested that psychopaths are overrepresented in occupations such as politics, business, and entertainment.) The bigger picture is more abysmal.

According to “Boy”, the sole gunman on the scene who claimed he could not bring himself to participate in the killing, “Datu Andal himself said […] to us: anyone from the Mangudadatu clan—women or children—should be killed… We [didn’t] ask why, we just followed orders. “How many of us have found ourselves in exactly the same situation—one in which we, in spite of our moral convictions, failed to question authority and therefore suffered the perils of obedience?

In the early 1960s, perhaps inspired in part by the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann—also the subject of a book by philosopher Hannah Arendt, in which she introduced the concept of the “banality of evil”—Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to test how far people were willing to obey commands from an authority figure. The volunteers, who had been recruited via newspaper ads, were made to play the role of “teacher”, and conducted simple memory exercises that a “learner” would provide answers to. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was to administer progressively higher electric shocks to a “learner”, who was strapped to a miniature electric chair. There were 30 shock levels in all, from 15 volts to 450 volts. The electrocution was not real, but the learner, an actor, would express discomfort and pain, even scream, to convince the teacher that actual shocks were being delivered by the machine. Every time the teacher hesitated, the experimenter would prompt the teacher to press the switch.

In a poll that Milgram conducted among psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults, 100% of the respondents predicted that the teachers would defy the experimenter, and that few teachers would go beyond the mild shock levels. The results of Milgram’s first set of experiments proved otherwise: out of 40 teachers, 26 administered the maximum shock of 450 volts. He would go on to conduct 17 other variations on the experiment and compile the results in Obedience to Authority, first published in 1974. Below are selected paragraphs from the opening chapter:

Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. This was seen time and again in our studies and has been observed in several universities where the experiment was repeated. It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of “obedient” subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky.  […] The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation—a conception of his duties as a subject—and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies.

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

The difficult lesson that emerged from Milgram’s experiments is one of the lessons that we need to revisit and keep uppermost in our minds as we struggle to deal with the grisly reality and the grislier implications of the Ampatuan Massacre. Those among us who sow discord and commit acts of unimaginable cruelty may just be doing their jobs. The perpetration of evil need not be, and is in fact far from, a mere aberration.