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Bitanga: The property and mining magnate behind Rappler

LOW-KEY property and mining billionaire Benjamin Bitanga is the Internet-only news site  Rappler’s owner, its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicate, and which the magnate himself has confirmed.

This was a revelation to me, as I always suspected that the super-billionaire Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala was behind Rappler, as he had been close to its CEO Maria Ressa. I had also thought Rappler’s chairman Manuel Ayala was the Zobel de Ayala’s distant relative (no relation, it turns out) and that his telecoms firm Globe Telecom logically needed a content provider, not to mention a major Philippine elite’s need to have a stake in media.

Rappler, which went online in 2012, had been hugely supportive of the Benigno Aquino 3rd administration, most probably due to the yellowish leanings of Ressa and its other top editors. As such, Rappler has been extremely critical of President Duterte and his government.

A Rappler article in March even tried to besmirch the reputation of Duterte’s most trusted aide, Christopher Go, by implying that he protected a drug lord’s fugitive nephew_—when he merely told the suspect’s mother through a text message to convince his son to surrender. (“Peter Lim relatives reach out to Bong Go in road rage case,” March 20, 2017)

Rappler’s worst and most damaging black propaganda against the Duterte administration—and the country—has been its fabrication in its article posted September 11, 2016, that as of that date, the number of drug-related extra-judicial killings (EJKs) under Duterte totaled 7,080.

That false number has been quoted as a fact by nearly all Western media and by Human Rights Watch, consequently claiming that Duterte’s war against drugs has resulted in a mass murder in the country. The figure has been used to extrapolate the number of EJKs to this day, so much so that a “10,000” figure for April has been reported in a US newspaper. Rappler’s articles in fact were the most cited “evidence” in the nuisance case filed by an obscure lawyer at the International Criminal Court against Duterte and 11 other officials for “mass murder” in our country. (See my column “How Rappler misled EU, Human Rights Watch, CNN, Time, BBC — the world;” March 20, 2017)

Benjamin Bitanga at the January signing agreement between BCDA and his Sunray Power Inc.

Despite the fact that Rappler’s 7,080 number has been incontrovertibly proven as totally wrong, Rappler has refused to correct it, and to spite is critics has even “updated” its September post 80 times.

For all of Rappler’s highfalutin’ claim that its mission is, in its own words, “to inspire community engagement and digitally fueled actions for social change,” its owner, Bitanga, set it up with no lofty goals but just business in mind, with opportunities he perceived as having been opened up by the worldwide web.

Although largely invisible in newspapers’ business pages, Bitanga is well-known among Manila and Cebu’s business elite for his meteoric rise in the past decade, with the Chinese-Filipino tycoon Lucio Tan and Cebu magnate and former Ramos-era politician Emilio (“Lito”) Osmena having been his biggest business partners in the past. Sources close to these two businessmen informed me though they no longer have any business relationship with Bitanga since the past many years.

Bitanga’s business coup of sorts was when he set up in 1995 MacroAsia Catering which provided catering services to airlines at the international airport, and then sold it a year later, reportedly at a huge profit, to Tan, who had acquired Philippine Airlines.

Rappler’s biggest fabrication: That there were 7,080 extra-judicial killings by September 2016

Bitanga’s flagship company which he has tight control of is the listed company MRC Allied (MRC), which until 2013 was controlled by the tycoon’s son, Lucio, Jr.

It’s either a testament to our democratic system or to Bitanga’s audacity, that while he owns the anti-Duterte news site, his major businesses all require government cooperation.

Osmeña’s project
MRC’s 123-hectare Cebu Techno Park/New Cebu Township in Naga City, Cebu, was initially Osmeña’s project, which was given exclusive economic zone status during the Fidel Ramos administration. Its operations as an economic zone is under the supervision of the Philippines Export Processing Zone Authority.

MRC’s 700 hectares of raw land by the sea in San Isidro, Leyte, also had been Osmeña’s grandiose project in the early 2000s, his vision for an island paradise for the super-rich in a backward fourth-class municipality, with rumors that even Ramos and the Sultan of Brunei had bought vast estates there. The project went bust though in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, with the land practically abandoned.

Bitanga’s MRC under Aquino 3rd’s administration has gone heavily into mining with the following ventures, acquired from the Davao firms Alberto Mining and Pensons Mining:

• MRC Tampakan Mine which has rights to 8,000 hectares of land allegedly containing copper and gold in copper and gold in Davao del Sur and Sultan Kudarat, adjacent toTampakan, established as the 5th largest gold-copper deposit in the world.

• MRC Davao Mines, with 8,475 hectares of copper and gold mining area in Davao del Norte;

• MRC Boston-Cateel, with 9,720 hectares of gold mining area at the foot of Mt. Diwalwal in Davao Oriental; and

• MRC Surigao Mines, with 3,720 hectares of mining rights for copper and gold in the so-called “Gold Belt” Marihatag, Surigao del Sur.

Energy ventures
In 2015 MRC also went into the renewable-energy business. Last January, the Bases Conversion and Development Authority leased for 25 years 260 hectares of its Clark Green City in Clark Freeport to Bitanga’s Sunray Power, Inc. which will build a 100-megawatt P12-billion solar power facility there. Sunray’s chairman is Salvador Zamora, the brother of Nickel Asia chairman Manuel Zamora and Rep. Ronaldo Zamora.

Last year, Bitanga’s Menlo Renewable Energy Corp. got a two-year solar energy service contract from the energy department for the development of a 60-megawatt solar power plant in Naga City, Cebu.

Bitanga’s official stake in Rappler is through his firm called Dolphin Fire Group. I was told that the equity of other major stockholders appearing in Rappler’s corporate reports—board chairman Manuel Ayala and CEO Maria Ressa—are actually insignificant, and they are essentially employees.

While the 2016 stock report to the SEC show that Rappler’s paid-up capital totals P121 million, its financial statements for 2015 show its total capital to amount to P255 million. (This was reduced though to P213 million because of its losses in the past three years of P163 million.)

The discrepancy of P131 million is due to the investments in 2015 in Rappler by two American firms, Omidyar Network and North Base Media, which therefore make up 52 percent of the news site’s capitalization.

This however violates the Constitution which totally bans any foreign money in media firms. Rappler’s excuse is that the investments are in the form of Philippine Depositary Receipts, a legal fiction of a foreigner owning all rights to a group of shares, although these are not transferred to his name. (See my October 28, 2016 column, “Media firm Rappler scorns Constitution by getting foreign money.”)

Bitanga says he doesn’t have any control over Rappler’s editorial content. That is hogwash, what all media owners claim.

It’s just like saying that you are not responsible if the car you own runs over people, and you can’t fire your reckless driver.