MANILA, Philippines – On Monday, April 22, the Manila Times published an article claiming that media and human rights groups are part of a plot to oust the President.
The article was written not by any of its editorial staff, but by the publication’s big boss himself, Chairman Emeritus Dante Ang, who was appointed special envoy for international public relations by President Rodrigo Duterte in May 2017.
Ang’s fantastic story attempted to draw links between “Bikoy,” an anonymous man who was featured in a video series entitled, “Ang totoong narco list (The real narco list),” which were distributed on social media in early April.
It claimed, among other things that, “false narratives” are distributed to media and human rights groups through Vera Files president Ellen Tordesillas. The publicist falsely implicated groups Vera Files, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Rappler, and the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL).
In a press conference on the same day that the Manila Times article was released, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said that the links among Bikoy, Tordesillas, Vera Files, PCIJ, NUPL, and Rappler were based on intel provided by a “foreign ally” to the Office of the President (OP).
The Armed Forces of the Philippines, however, said they have not monitored any specific threat to unseat the President. In addition, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra also said there was not enough basis “for now” for the Department of Justice to launch a probe into the supposed links.
We reviewed the Manila Times article and transcripts from the press conference held by Panelo after the article was released and found at least 10 claims which are either outright false, misleading, or unproven based on the information provided.
Claim 1: Ellen Tordesillas acted as the “distributor” of the materials from Bikoy to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), and Rappler.
The facts: Tordesillas did not embed or share the actual “Ang totoong narco list” video in her article published under the “commentary” section of Vera Files on April 5. When she wrote about it, she only included screenshots of the video which was distributed online on April 2.
Panelo said during a press conference that the source of Ang’s “oust Duterte” story was the Office of the President. “The source of that is from the Office of the President, from the President himself. I don’t know how he got one. But it’s coming from the President. I talked to him the other day. You must remember that the President has so many sources, so he got this matrix from one of his sources.”
Clearly Panelo resorted to an appeal to authority fallacy, in effect, saying that because no less than the President was the source of Ang’s information, it must be truthful. No other proof was provided that Tordesillas actually did share the video.
Claim 2: The President is a “reliable” source.
Panelo said this during the briefing where he confirmed that the information published by the Manila Times came from Malacañang. He pointed out, “Siguro naman (We assume that it is reliable), considering he is the President, he has so many sources, eh validated `yan (We assume it is validated),” Panelo said.
“Galing kay Presidente, eh. Paniwalaan niyo (It is from the President, you better believe it),” the Palace official added.
The facts: The President has admitted to lying a number of times. He has also been called out for using inconsistent statistics in his speeches about the drug war.
In September 2017, the President admitted to lying about Senator Antonio Trillanes IV’s Singapore bank account number. He made up the number, he said, because he wanted to “catch” Trillanes doing something dishonest. (READ: Duterte says he ‘invented’ Trillanes bank account number in interview)
A video of his interview with Erwin Tulfo where he admitted to lying is embedded below.
Claim 3: The alleged “matrix” provided to The Manila Times shows “what appears to be a coordinated media campaign to discredit the President.”
The facts: Only Tordesillas, who wrote an opinion piece days after the video was distributed, actually published a story about the video. Her opinion piece was published on Vera Files. But neither Vera Files, PCIJ, Rappler, nor even NUPL shared the video or any link from MetroBalita.net, which was included in Ang’s diagram.
Neither was there proof provided that the video was even shared via email by the parties – as indicated by Ang.
Claim 4: Inday Varona and Danilo Arao are “linked” to the NUPL; Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng is “linked” to PCIJ.
The facts: Varona and Arao are not lawyers and therefore not members of the NUPL. Gokongwei-Cheng used to be a member of the PCIJ board of editors but has already quit.
The NUPL lawyers provided the alternative press groups legal counsel in a case against a company that allegedly launched the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.
According to his Linkedin page, Arao is a professor at the University of the Philippines, a columnist of Pinoy Weekly, and a member of the board of editors of Bulatlat.com. Inday Espina-Varona is a journalist and one of the founding members of arts and media alliance Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity (Lodi).
PCIJ has said that at least 5 people associated with them on the diagram are no longer with their organization. Some resigned between March 2018 to 2019.
The other names included in the diagram of NUPL and PCIJ networks are officers of the two organizations. Their names can be found on their websites’ “About” page.
Rappler’s board of directors and Vera Files’ co-founders are listed on their websites, too.
Claim 5: Media organizations PCIJ, Vera Files, Rappler “have not refuted allegations of foreign funding.”
The facts: These organizations voluntarily disclosed their funding sources. These were never hidden from the public.
Rappler has explained and has been transparent about their case with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Investments in Rappler by Omidyar and North Base Media were disclosed in 2015, as soon as investment agreements were approved. Rappler’s ownership structure is disclosed in The Rappler Story: Independent Journalism with Impact. Specific funding for projects, such as the fact check initiative, are likewise disclosed. (READ: FAQs: Rappler’s SEC case)
PCIJ, for its part, indicates on its website that they are funded by the sale of publications and videos, contributions from patrons, and their journalism training program. They also state that they obtain revenue from the proceeds of an endowment fund, whose seed money came from the Ford Foundation.
Vera Files also says on its website that its gets funding from grants, proceeds from the sale of its stories, and contributions from trustees and supporters.
Claim 6: It is against the Philippine Constitution for media groups to receive funding from foreign sources.
The facts: It is foreign ownership that is prohibited by the Constitution. There is no provision in the 1987 Constitution that bars media groups from receiving funding from foreign sources.
Claim 7: The first visualization is a “matrix.”
The facts: It is not. It’s a network graph as pointed out by some data scientists. Strictly speaking, a matrix is an arrangement of numbers, symbols, or letters in rows and columns.
Claim 8: The 2nd diagram is a “link analysis of email footprints.”
Rating: NO PROOF
The facts: The report provided no proof that the information was sourced from email headers or code that identifies the origin of the email and how it was sent. All of the information in the diagram can be sourced from openly available sources.
The IP addresses of the websites mentioned in the diagram can be traced using standard lookup tools.
Below is a table of the websites mentioned with their corresponding IP addresses, also mentioned in the diagrams. These were found using securitytrails.com.
Claim 9: The series 192.232.266.147 is the IP address of a server “linked” to Vera Files and Ellen Tordesillas.
The facts: The so-called “IP address” is not a valid one because the number 266 is beyond the range of IPV4 [internet protocol version 4] address numbers. IPV4 is a system for assigning different IP addresses for every device that is used in the internet and numbers can only go as high as 255.
Claim 10: There is a link between firstname.lastname@example.org – the email supposedly used to log in to the YouTube channel that first uploaded the video – and Verafiles.org.
Rating: NO PROOF
The facts: Apart from the shoddy network diagram, nothing else was provided by Ang to connect the two. The network diagram is also unclear about the nature of the link between the two. – Vernise L. Tantuco, Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza/Rappler.com
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