Apollo Quiboloy

[Pastilan] How I avoided an online brawl

Herbie Gomez
[Pastilan] How I avoided an online brawl

Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

Again, here’s the question in clearer and more blunt terms: Will Mr. Quiboloy man up and face his accusers by submitting himself to US authorities for trial as soon as possible?

My mind is toying with the idea that people who believe in the literal truth of old tales, passed on from the period when metal replaced stone tools, are more susceptible to disinformation.

I question the state of the critical faculties of anyone who asserts that once upon a time, in a faraway land, snakes and humans literally talked to each other. My eyes roll, and it makes me wonder what other wild tale the person can swallow hook, line, and sinker.

I won’t debate with a man who asserts that the Holocaust never happened or that Adolf Hitler had all the good intentions in the world, and did well. In that case, there simply is no more common ground between us – he is living in another dimension where the word reality means the exact opposite.

Neither do I have any interest whatsoever in striking a conversation with someone who thinks that way, and insists that I should simply respect his position because that is his point of view. If what he is saying is take it or leave it, then I go for “leave it.”

If he has the right to exercise stupidity to the fullest, I also have a right to turn my back and look for another person – someone who’s not a bonehead – to talk to or argue with. 

Of course, he has a right to be injudicious and be allowed to remain as such if he wishes to. But contrived stupidity and willful ignorance, for goodness’ sake, are not to be dignified like these are virtues. These are malignant flaws in character that deserve to be treated with contempt rather than respected. Our heroes died fighting for freedoms but never for deliberate idiocy.

Simply put, some assertions are worth respecting; others are not such as the claim that Elvis Presley is alive or that the Paul McCartney we know now is just a look-alike and that the original Beatle died in 1966. It makes me want to puke that many of the opinions and assertions going the rounds these days are in that category.

I recall reporting for a major Manila-based broadsheet in the ‘90s about how people made noise in a Misamis Oriental town because of an herb. A villager with nothing much to do stared at the trunk of a banana plant one day and saw its natural stains forming something which resembled that of the image in the Shroud of Turin. What followed were unvalidated stories about miracles and how people supposedly got cured. Yes, by the banana plant!

In August 2021, I wrote a story for Rappler about an outrageous tale that went viral on social media. It was about the COVID-19 vaccines and a supposedly impending zombie apocalypse. It turned out that it wasn’t intended as a prank. That was crazy, but some people took that as gospel truth and used it to promote vaccination hesitancy. The story was traced to a self-styled Davao-based preacher, Rod Cubos, who categorically warned his followers against getting jabbed or risk ending up roasted in hell for all eternity.

Cubos is based in a Mindanao region where another doomsday preacher by the name of Apollo Quiboloy is giving some of the old tales a twist, weaving them with his outrageous narratives and claims about himself. 

His unfounded assertions are something I see as a waste of time because he is not alone – there are other versions of outlandish stories out there being peddled by overzealous preachers who succeeded in convincing themselves about their own falsehoods. 

His product is religion which even sun worshippers may freely practice in a democracy. 

In my mind, freedom of speech and expression protects sound and unsound ideas, reason and unreason, wisdom and stupidity, and both the religious and irreligious. 

Sheer ridiculousness is not a crime in this country. But neither is meeting it with derision and guffaws or even ill-concealed laughter. The antidote to a bad idea is a good idea.

That is until ideas become dangerous, are used to hurt others and trample on rights, exploit people and take advantage of their ignorance for self-gain. That is when we draw the line.

I live in Mindanao, a land that has emerged as a major contributor to some of the worst views, dangerous ideas, and disinformation in the Philippines in recent years. 

We published a report by Rappler digital communications specialist Gaby Baizas and researcher Pauline Macaraeg about how Mr. Quiboloy’s Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) has been disguising propaganda as news and using its platforms to attack those critical of the Duterte administration.

“SMNI News is in the middle of the network of pages, accounts, and websites that have shared and created posts that attacked the media. Rappler scanned public posts from January 1, 2016, to October 31, 2021, to study posts with mentions of attack words we have collected over years of monitoring online harassment against the press. These words included “‘presstitute’ (a portmanteau of press and prostitute), ‘bayaran (paid hacks),’ and ‘bias,’ among others,” read part of the report.

Using culled data, the journalists showed us maps of the network of pages, accounts, and websites that were used for this purpose from 2020 to 2021.

Topacio’s trap

The report came out on Sunday, February 6, hours after lawyers of Mr. Quiboloy concluded an online press conference organized as an offshoot of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s publication of the fugitive preacher’s and his two associates’ wanted posters.

It was a Sunday – my Rappler-sanctioned “sabbath day” – but I attended the press conference because I am duty-bound to hear and write about what Mr. Quiboloy and his fellow fugitives have to say about their indictment and the FBI posters through their legal representatives.

For the record, we have exerted and exhausted reasonable efforts to get their side and give them the space that their accusers have been afforded. It is the Quiboloy group that declined requests for interviews except for an instance in December 2021 when the preacher’s lawyer in Hawaii, Michael Jay Green, spoke to us for about an hour. They have our contact information, and can easily get in touch with us anytime they wish to.

I was raising a question during the lawyers’ press conference, but even before I could finish it, lawyer Ferdinand Topacio butted in and greeted it with hostility.

There and then, I realized that it was a bait, something that I refused to bite no matter how Topacio tried so hard to drag me into what could have turned into a live-streamed online brawl.

It was a simple question. Here is the gist: Will Mr. Quiboloy immediately hand himself over to US authorities to expedite the trial, face his accusers and prove them wrong or take the long road that the extradition process offers?

That was a legitimate question. Yet Topacio made a big fuss out of it in his failed attempt to turn the tables on Rappler because he was unhappy with our news reports and editorials.

What followed after that simple question was media bashing, er, Rappler bashing, and threats of lawsuits which Topacio and Co. probably think journalists aren’t used to getting.

That was readable – his game plan was to turn the press conference into a fresh launching pad for a new wave of online attacks against Rappler, and its CEO, Maria Ressa, who, I can say without batting an eyelash, wasn’t involved in any way in my work on the Quiboloy case (except that she’s the CEO).

Had I fallen into Topacio’s trap, I would have been more rude (his was tame by my standards) and said something that could be used to fuel more online attacks. 

I was already done with my question and took note of his answer. But then the lawyers wanted me again, and the moderator called me back. So, I obliged and rephrased the same question that caught Topacio’s ire earlier.

Again, here’s the question, rephrased, in clearer and more blunt terms: Will Mr. Quiboloy man up and face his accusers by submitting himself to US authorities for trial as soon as possible or dillydally by trying to punch holes into the anticipated request for extradition?

Was that an illegal question? All that Topacio blah-blah-blah just because I asked that.

Frustrated that I didn’t show signs of getting piqued, and what was intended as an online ambush allowed me to sneak that question in again, Topacio continued his rant against Rappler. To see a lawyer run amok over a simple question was a bit entertaining, I should say. It made me wonder who his law teacher was.

I just stuck to that question so as not to deviate from the topic and wrote two news reports that were faithful to their pronouncements.

It wasn’t Rappler that went berserk with an arsenal of insults, sarcasm, and trolls during an online press conference.

It wasn’t Rappler that charged Quiboloy and eight of his associates in the US with conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, sex trafficking of children, marriage fraud, fraud, and misuse of visas, bulk cash smuggling, promotional money laundering, concealment money laundering, and international promotional money laundering.

It wasn’t Rappler that called them fugitives in the US and decided to release their wanted posters.

The thing is, they don’t want all these reported and brought to the light. And so, they shoot the messenger. Pastilan. – Rappler.com

Journalist Herbie Gomez is Rappler’s Mindanao bureau coordinator. A shorter version of this opinion piece was published in Rappler’s newsletter to subscribers on Thursday, February 10.

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