[OPINION] When Facebook takes down a journalist's account without due process

It was like a Pearl Harbor experience. Bombs dropped on a Sunday night as I was deeply sleeping.

Unlike the December 1941 sneaky Japanese raid, there was no physical destruction, only that I was virtually incapacitated.

Upon waking up on Monday morning, I realized that Facebook had banned me from liking, sharing, and commenting on my account as well as in Messenger. I could not even make a call.

I virtually became a ghost. On the surface, my Facebook account was up and running. People on my Friends list could send me messages and post on my timeline – commenting, liking, and sharing my posts. 

But they could think I was rude for not responding or reacting to their posts. 

My apologies for that; not my fault.

I could blame the diehard supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte. I had probably stirred a hornet’s nest when I posted a comment on Duterte’s threat to cut government ties with a non-government humanitarian agency, the Philippine Red Cross. The Philippine Red Cross head is a high-profile senator, who chairs the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, the upper house’s public accountability panel, which is scrutinizing the government’s procurement deal with a small Davao City-based company which supplied billions of pesos worth of medical products – from face masks, face shields and personal protective equipment (PPEs), to expensive RT-PCR testing machines, the gold standard in the testing for coronavirus.

I have no issue with takedowns of fake accounts spreading lies. 

Facebook has taken down hundreds of pages and accounts promoting disinformation – but only after a long process.

In my case as a journalist, I was easily shut down. Journalists who speak truth to power seem to be a lonely voice in the wilderness of networked pages and accounts, which can defy shutdowns by creating new identities.

My post about a bad contract

Duterte has been defending the multi-billion peso deal between the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) and the little known Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corporation by attacking the senators who have been digging into what could be an anomalous contract.

The maverick leader is also bent on supporting a personal friend who was linked to the transaction.

It is unimaginable how a small company with less than a million pesos in paid-up capital and with no track record of transacting business with the government could clinch multi-billion contracts in just a matter of months after it was set up.

Only a politically-connected entity can do that. It even got around time-honored practices of government procurement processes and procedures.

Pharmally does not manufacture any of the products it was able to sell to the government. It has no logistics network, including warehouses, to deliver what it offered the government.

But it was a surprise that Pharmally delivered face masks even ahead of a purchase order from PS-DBM. What could be the basis for the company to come up with the correct specifications for a product without a purchase order?

Yet the PS-DBM accepted the delivery of 500,000 face masks. Could it be that the PS-DBM tailor fit the purchase order to what Pharmally had delivered?

There is nothing new to the practice of designing the specifications of a product to match a favored contractor’s offer, which is usually done during tenders for a project or procurement contract.

But what is unusual in this case was that there were no tenders, and even if there was a negotiated deal, the products were delivered ahead of the purchase order.

It’s like putting the cart ahead of the horse, a shameless disregard of the government procurement law.

Then-undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao, who headed the PS-DBM last year, cited the pandemic as a convenient excuse to shortcut the processes, arguing that the government was rushing the acquisition of medical materials at the onset of the health crisis last year.

In one of the earlier Blue Ribbon Committee hearings, Lao admitted throwing away due diligence and best practices in awarding a contract because the President ordered the purchase of medical supplies at all costs. He would then deny making this claim in subsequent Senate hearings.

Could it be that Lao awarded the contract to Pharmally because the executives of the untested company are Davao City-based Chinese businessmen who have links with the President’s friend?

These Chinese businessmen were used to Divisoria-style business practices, which is actually bad for a big government contract.

Why could the government not go straight to the manufacturers and get a good price for the medical supplies it was buying? Why would it go to the middlemen or sales agents who are offering higher prices for a face mask?

The senators said a 100% Filipino company, which had been generating employment at the time of the pandemic, was selling similar face masks at half the price Pharmally was offering.

Bad decision. Bad contract. And a waste of precious government resources. Those were the facts and insights I posted on my account.

Why take it down?

Duterte’s followers obviously did not like my commentaries, which were shared by my friends. I surmise that they took action and reported en masse my account as a violation of Facebook’s community standard rules.

Facebook arbitrarily suspended my account for three days without any due process. It never asked for my side and may not even have looked into what I had posted if it was a violation of community standards.

Facebook has an appeal process, but I suggest they review a post thoroughly before it takes unilateral action against an account.

Perhaps I could also take some blame for not identifying myself as a journalist in my account. I am using an alias in my account name and have not changed it since 2016. But I was forced to make that alias after I was hacked and fell victim to cyber bullying for reporting on Duterte’s war on drugs. I have since then changed the settings of my account and restricted it to my friends, who can see and comment on my private posts. A quick browse through my account should have shown Facebook that I’m real, I’m a journalist, and I am no fake.

But this latest incident got me to think that there is no more reason to use an alias. Followers and ardent admirers of the administration would be on the lookout anyway, for I could make another commentary against the president as he spirals out of control.

This administration has found a way to censor adverse commentaries about government policies and actions which are detrimental to public interest. It has exploited the Facebook community standard rules to muzzle freedom of expression and constructive criticism. It has effectively silenced dissent and hijacked the narrative to advance their own political agenda and interests.

At the same time, it has been spreading “fake news” or disinformation through several social media influencers, and Facebook seems helpless in policing its hate messages and propaganda.

We live with these realities, such as the actions taken by Facebook, and treat them as hazards of the job. 

Pearl Harbor was decades ago. But we could still fall victims to a sneak attack under a new world order.

And all because we tell it like it is.  – Rappler.com

Manny Mogato is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and 2017 McLuhan Fellow.