“IF there is wrongdoing affecting the public interest, regardless of any relationship, we release to the public,” Maria Ressa, Rappler’s CEO, said on her blog “Brave New World” as she reflected on the ethics of releasing confidential documents (“Wikileaks: More and more of less and less,” December 20, 2010).
This month, Ressa discarded this laudable stance as Rappler collaborated with The Intercept, a foreign online news site funded also by their investor, in releasing confidential documents leaked by saboteurs in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). The documents contain the transcripts of the phone conversation between US President Donald Trump and President Rodrigo Duterte on April 29, 2017. A typical conversation between two allies, mulling over a common threat.
On May 25, 2017, in her Facebook account, Chay Hofileña, the head of Rappler’s investigative desk, addressed the flak that Rappler had been getting by drawing comparisons with the release of the top-secret Pentagon Papers in the 1970s. Daniel Ellsberg, the US military analyst who leaked them, said those papers “demonstrated unconstitutional behavior.” Hofileña hasn’t established any analogous unconstitutional acts committed by Duterte. To use what Ressa said about the US diplomatic cables that Wikileaks released, the transcripts are “a far cry from the Pentagon Papers in terms of exposing wrongdoing.”
In her FB account, Ressa, said that “the transcripts show that both presidents said something privately that differ from their public positions.” Yet she hasn’t demonstrated how those differences warranted breaching the confidentiality of presidential communications.
In United States vs. Nixon (1974), the US Supreme Court compelled President Richard Nixon to release certain tapes and papers that could criminally implicate him. Nixon objected by appealing to executive privilege. The Supreme Court disagreed, arguing that executive privilege “must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.” If the interest of justice isn’t at stake, it is “in the public interest to afford presidential confidentiality the greatest protection consistent with the fair administration of justice.” And that protection extends “to idle conversations with associates in which casual reference might be made concerning political leaders within the country or foreign statesmen.”
There’s nothing inappropriate, scandalous, or felonious in the DFA confidential documents. Even using Ressa’s own ethical framework, Rappler has no legitimate reason that could absolve them and the leaker from any criminal liability or that could vindicate them historically.
Let’s entertain Rappler’s motivations for co-publishing those illegally acquired documents. Perhaps some compelling public interests might overpower “the public interest to afford presidential confidentiality the greatest protection.”
On May 24, 2017, Rappler’s investigative team identified three “differences” between Duterte’s public and private positions.
First, while Duterte encouraged North Korea and the US to “show restraint;” in his conversation with Trump, he urged him to “keep the pressure on [Kim Jung-un].” Those two aren’t incompatible nor against the official position of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on the matter. Asean encourages both parties to show restraint, while at the same time pressures North Korea to obey United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. What’s wrong about Duterte telling the US, one of the permanent members of the UNSC, to continue that pressure?
Second, Rappler found issue with Duterte telling the public that it was Trump who told him to call Xi Jinping to help manage the crisis. The transcript showed that Duterte volunteered that idea. Trump said: “Please call China and tell them we are all counting on China.” Is there anything morally, legally, diplomatically, and strategically wrong with what Duterte did? It was a diplomatic class act! Instead of being a braggart about his idea, Duterte made the US look like a power still willing to find diplomatic and political solutions to the Korean Peninsula crisis. Yet instead of looking at the strategic value of what Duterte did, Rappler chose to demonize him.
And third, Rappler pointed out that while Duterte “curses at the US in public,” on behalf of Asean, he still expressed support for “US intervention in the Korean Peninsula crisis.” International relations isn’t an all or nothing affair. That Duterte harshly pans certain aspects of US foreign policies doesn’t mean that he couldn’t recognize the difference the US could make in other areas, including the Korean Peninsula crisis. After all, the US is an important player in that issue, as it’s one of the members of the Six-Party Talks, meant to address security concerns on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
In her FB post, Ressa mentioned the need to expose something that “is being kept secret at the public’s expense or to manipulate the public.”
In his speech during the 27th Philippine Orthopaedic Association mid-year convention on May 4, 2017, Duterte already divulged some parts of his conversation with Trump. He even said that he’d “be happy to make it public.” But he has “to tell the White House that [he’s] going to,” which is necessary. That’s not the behavior of a President who wants to hoodwink people and betray the public’s trust. Why did Rappler take the illegal route if Duterte already opened a possible legal path to divulge the conversation?
Without demonstrably satisfying any compelling public interest, Rappler and the leaker accomplished only one thing: thoroughly damage our government’s reputation concerning its ability to safeguard the confidentiality of high-level diplomatic communications. Other leaders will now surely hesitate to have frank conversations with our leaders. We cannot let Rappler and the leaker do this to our Republic.