On April 22, the Manila Times, a newspaper in the Philippines, published a story that claimed there’s a plot to discredit the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, and destabilize his government.
Several media organizations are identified in the alleged conspiracy, including Rappler, a news website, and VERA Files, a nonprofit fact-checking publication.
According to the story in the Times, written by Dante A. Ang, "there’s an obvious pattern of close coordination among some media organizations for the timely production of anti-Duterte stories."
Rappler and VERA Files, among others, have denied the accusation. We looked into claims they were part of such a conspiracy and found no credible evidence supporting the idea that Filipino journalists are plotting to oust the president.
Let’s look at what we know.
The Manila Times story
If you’re not familiar with the politics of the Philippines, here’s a quick catch up: Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in 2016 after running as a tough, anti-crime candidate. He’s since waged an anti-drug campaign that has led to the deaths of thousands of people there. As local news organizations have covered the killings and drawn international attention to the Southeast Asian country, Duterte has accused journalists of lying, threatened to block the license renewal of the largest broadcast network, ABS-CBN, and said reporters are "not exempted from assassination."
It is in that context that on April 22 the article accusing journalists of plotting against the president appeared on the Manila Times’ website. The writer, Ang, is the paper’s chairman emeritus. He’s also the special envoy for international public relations in the Philippines, a post he was appointed to by Duterte.
"The playbook is all too familiar," Ang writes in the story. "Utilize the media, plant fake news, distribute them to the friendly media outlets, whet the people’s appetite, arouse anger, manipulate public emotion, touch base with the Leftist organization, enlist the support of the police and the military, then go for the ‘kill.’ That’s how coups are staged."
At the story’s center is a visual matrix that Ang says "shows what appears to be a coordinated media campaign to discredit the president."
The matrix looks like a flow chart with lines labeled as "links" between parties. According to the matrix, a website called Metro Balita (metrobalita.net) is linked to someone called "Bikoy" and "Bikoy" is linked to Ellen Tordesillas, president of VERA Files.
Ang writes that "black propaganda" from "Bikoy" is funneled to Tordesillas. Tordesillas then "acts as the nexus and distributor of the materials" to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Rappler and the National Union of People’s Lawyers. They then "distribute their false narratives to their respective members."
Who is Bikoy?
Bikoy is the pseudonym of a man who recently posted videos online that accused members of the Duterte family of benefiting from the illegal drug trade, according to an April 23 story in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s leading newspaper. Bikoy also accused the president’s former special assistant of being involved in illegal drugs.
Duterte vowed to retaliate against the people behind the videos, according to the Inquirer, and the country’s justice secretary ordered cybercrime investigators to pursue them.
In the matrix in Ang’s story, Bikoy is linked to two parties: Tordesillas and Metro Balita. When we visited metrobalita.net on May 1, we received an error message saying the site’s server IP address couldn’t be found.
We checked with Benjamin Decker, who studies the spread of misinformation online, and he said the site was created on March 31. The internet service provider, though, is in the Netherlands, he said. And the domain — metrobalita.net — uses a privacy hosting company to mask its true ownership.
Who are the media organizations, and what do they say?
Rappler, VERA Files and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the media organizations named in the Manila Times story, have "condemned the matrix as baseless," according to an April 24 Rappler story.
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism says it has never received emails from Tordesillas of VERA Files about the Bikoy videos, nor has it posted or distributed stories or commentaries about them.
For her part, Tordesillas wrote about the videos on April 5 in an article labeled "commentary" on VERA Files’ website. Two videos from Bikoy, who claims to be a former member of a drug syndicate, appeared on YouTube two weeks after Duterte released a list of local officials allegedly involved in drug trafficking, Tordesillas wrote. She described the videos, posted screen grabs of them and shared reactions from members of the Duterte family, but she did not post the videos themselves.
Tordesillas says her involvement in the alleged plot is "downright false." "It’s hilarious," she wrote on April 24. "But what I find disturbing is, if this is the kind of intelligence report that the president gets and bases his actions and policies on, the country is in big trouble."
Like PolitiFact, VERA Files and Rappler have partnered with Facebook as third-party fact-checkers to fight disinformation on the social media platform. In 2017, Rappler and VERA Files qualified as signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles. (Disclosure: PolitiFact is operated by Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit journalism training institution. PolitiFact is also a member of the International Fact-Checking Network, which is itself a business unit of Poynter.)
The Filipino government protested the news organizations’ partnerships with Facebook. A presidential spokesperson said it was "unacceptable," and described the fact-checkers as "partisan" and "anti-administration."
The Rappler has been critical of the Duterte administration and the president has attacked its reporters before.
In March, Maria Ressa, who co-founded the online news organization in 2011, as arrested on charges that she and members of Rappler violated laws concerning foreign ownership of a company. Ressa in late 2018 was one of several journalists from across the globe who were named Time magazine’s "Person of the Year." She is also one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2019.
"Her arrest is the latest move in a broader crackdown on the news media by Mr. Duterte, who has accused reporters of being ‘spies’ and ‘sons of bitches,’" the New York Times then reported. Ressa said attacks against her turned aggressive after Rappler published a 2016 expose that outlined how Duterte supporters manipulated Facebook to build support for his leadership, the New York Times said, and Rappler has been the focus of much of Duterte’s campaign against the media.
What evidence is there of a plot?
The Manila Times and the office of the president did not immediately respond to emails PolitiFact sent seeking evidence that journalists are collaborating to destabilize the government.
But the Manila Times’ managing editor, Felipe Salvosa II, objected to publishing Ang’s story and resigned in its wake. Salvosa, who is also a journalism professor at the University of Santo Tomas, was asked to resign after writing on Facebook that a "diagram is by no means evidence of ‘destabilization’ or an ‘ouster plot,’" according to a story in the Manila Times.
Salvosa told ABS-CBN News, another media outlet in the Philippines, that he was planning to quit: "I felt it was time to go after the publication of the ‘matrix’ story."
Dante Francis "Klink" Ang II, the Manila Times’ president and chief executive officer, said Salvosa behaved unethically, according to a story in the newspaper. He also "vouched for the veracity of the matrix, saying Duterte’s office itself provided the information to the Manila Times."
"The Manila Times stands by our ‘matrix’ piece, which is a story in itself," the article quotes Ang 2nd as saying. "As we explained to Mr. Salvosa, our chairman emeritus had a credible source — no less than the office of the president of the Philippines. Mr. Salvosa was also informed that our chairman emeritus did his own background check, using several sources, before submitting his draft for editing. … The oust-plot story was not a PR piece. It was a legitimate news item. Dr. Ang’s appointment as special envoy has no line item or office in the government or remuneration of any kind. He was simply acting on his journalistic instincts having been given an opportunity to write a legitimate story, that was later confirmed by the palace."
In a speech on April 21, before the Manila Times published its story about the plot, Duterte said that he would release intelligent information from a foreign country that showed the extent of corruption in the media, according to the Inquirer. But he said he didn’t know where the information came from.
"It just reached my table," the Inquirer quotes Duterte as saying. "But based on how it was written, I know it’s not from a Filipino. We just revised it and translated it. It wasn’t written in our language."
The story also quotes presidential palace spokesman Salvador Panelo saying that the matrix was based on "intelligence information gathered by a foreign country" and that it has been validated.
Panelo said he received a copy of the matrix from the Office of the President, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer on April 22: "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."
But a May 2 story from ABS-CBN shows the spokesman backtracking, claiming he got the matrix from an unknown source, not Duterte.
"President Duterte didn’t give anything," ABS-CBN quotes Panelo as saying. "Someone sent me a matrix. I told you someone sent me a text."
When we reached out to Gemma Mendoza, who leads Rappler’s fact-checking effort, she pointed us to another story published the same day as the Manila Times’ ouster allegations. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said they haven’t monitored any specific threat to unseat Duterte.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said there was not enough basis "for now" for the country’s justice department to investigate the journalists and lawyers identified in the matrix, Rappler reported. "We’ll let more facts unfold first," the outlet quotes Guevarra as saying. (The justice department did not respond to PolitiFact’s email about the alleged plot.)
An April 23 Inquirer story notes that the Philippine National Police has no evidence of a destabilization plot though its chief, Oscar Albayalde, "said he was not discounting the fact that there was a destabilization plot."
"I am sure it’s not just Bikoy," the Inquirer quotes Albayalde as saying. "Someone is (planning) this because everything is scripted, and I’m sure that requires a little financial … support."
An attack on free press?
The media organizations named in alleged plot believe the accusations are an attack on the free press.
"A free independent and critical press is a hallmark of democracy," the Center for Investigative Journalism wrote, concluding its post about the alleged plot. "A press beholden to the powers-that-be and shirks from its responsibility to fully inform the people on issues of grave public concern mocks its purpose for being."
Ressa, of Rappler, called the alleged plot "another palace ploy to harass journalists."
On April 29, VERA Files published a story calling for an end to "intimidation of independent media."
The presidential palace and the Manila Times "have not come up with anything to back up their false report alleging that journalists, news organizations and a lawyers’ group were involved in an oust-Duterte plot," the story says.
It goes on: "The matrix story would have been laughable if it was not deliberately manufactured to muddle the mind of the public with lies and endanger the lives of the persons named in the diagram," the piece says. "That it came from the highest official of the land who took his oath to preserve and defend the constitution and ‘do justices to every man’ is most disturbing and must not be tolerated."
Sheila Coronel, director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University and dean of the journalism school, helped found the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 1989. Her name appears in the matrix. No one at the center received messages about the Bikoy videos, as the story claims, and only Tordesillas even wrote about them, Coronel told PolitiFact.
"The matrix is part of a series of attacks on independent media," Coronel said. Especially insidious, she said, is the Manila Times charge that VERA Files, the center and Rappler "received largess from various foreign sources."
"They appear to have received massive foreign funding, which is against our Constitution, and therefore, these media outfits cannot claim objectivity," the original Manila Times story says. "Their critical Duterte stories become suspect."
Coronel pointed to Facebook as an example. As we mentioned, VERA Files and and Rappler, like PolitiFact, have a partnership with Facebook and are paid to fact-check disinformation online. If a media organization receives funding from a foundation from another country, could the Philippine government then say that it’s working on behalf of a foreign government?
"We fear that’s going to be used to eventually clamp down on independent media," Coronel said. Imagine, she added, that Donald Trump said U.S. publications can’t receive money from philanthropic organizations — that he would shut down a news organization for taking such funding.
Ronald Holmes, president of Pulse Asia Research, an organization in the Philippines that monitors political issues there, said the the Manila Times ouster claims story baselessly target "independent investigative journalists." More than a week after the story appeared, no independent organization has verified them.
David Timberman, a political analyst with several decades of experience analyzing political and governance issues in South Asia, noted that Duterte and his supporters have been putting "intense pressure" on independent media.
"The president frequently cites alleged plots to overthrow him as a way to discredit and attack opposition to him," he said.
John Gershman, a public service professor at New York University, said there’s no press conspiracy to oust Duterte: "If, in fact, this matrix is from a foreign intelligence source, ... I would read it as a ham-handed effort by the president to silence his critics via intimidation and set them up for harassment by his allies."
This isn’t the first time the president has produced a "matrix," said Ronald Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo School of Government in the Philippines. In 2016, for example, he implicated officials in a matrix that linked them to the drug trade and later apologized for including them. The government’s claims "often lack solid evidence and appear to reflect more opinion than fact," Mendoza told PolitiFact. "Many of us now fear this is a tactic to control different groups, and he has not exactly clarified where he gets his ‘intelligence’ from."
Where does that leave us?
The Manila Times posted a story that alleges Filipino journalists are part of a plot to oust President Rodrigo Duterte. Yet we found no evidence for the claim other than the word of the president, who has made death threats against some reporters, and his spokesperson. But even that sourcing is weak. Duterte said he didn’t know where the information came from: "It just reached my table." More recently, his spokesman contradicted earlier claims that the president provided him with a copy of the matrix and now says an unknown party texted it to him.
"Unsubstantiated allegations of a plot against Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte relayed by the president himself create an immediate danger for critical journalists," said Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The Duterte government needs to recognize that critical journalism is a key component of a healthy democracy, not evidence of a subversive plot."
If such evidence does emerge, we’ll reconsider the allegations against the Filipino journalists fingered in the matrix. But for now, we rate this statement False.