Bitanga: The magnate behind Ressa

MY fellow columnist Ramon Tulfo reported yesterday that Wilfredo Keng, the businessman libeled by Rappler, disclosed to him that it was  tycoon Benjamin Bitanga who invited him to invest P100 million in the internet-only news site. That wasn’t surprising at all.

 He (Bitanga, left) bankrolled Rappler, and made Ressa the Duterte-basher, its CEO and executive editor.
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In short, Bitanga is behind Rappler, and without Rappler, there wouldn’t be a Ressa. He is therefore the tycoon behind Ressa.

Without his money, there would not be a Ressa spreading lies that President Duterte is suppressing a press critical to him, or that, as Rappler’s editor-at-large Marites Vitug wrote in a Japanese publication, “the rule of law is broken in the Philippines.”

When I talked to Bitanga in 2017 though, he claimed that he hadn’t put any new money in the company since 2014. That was the year Keng claimed Bitanga invited him to invest P100 million in Rappler. A year later, in 2015, the two CIA-linked US entities, the National Endowment for Democracy and the Omidyar Network, invested P131 million in Rappler, in violation of the constitutional ban on foreign money in the media.

Rappler went online in January 2012, just when President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s despicable project, the removal of Chief Justice Renato Corona, was launched on Dec. 12, 2011.

Rappler in fact was at the forefront of the media mob to lynch Corona.  Its editor-at-large Vitug first published an article on Dec. 22, 2011 in Rappler’s Facebook prototype, and republished it Jan. 1, 2012, as the  banner story in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The article falsely and libelously alleged that the chief justice broke the rules to get his PhD from the University of Santo Tomas. That was a total lie.

Rappler had been hugely supportive of Aquino. It has not in fact published a single article critical of him and his mother Cory. It has been with the same energy that it supported Aquino that it has bashed Duterte. Think of any issue the Yellows and even the Reds have raised since 2016, Rappler has vigorously promoted it.

Talk about press freedom in the country. Rappler has been, next to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the shrillest black propagandist against President Duterte and his government.

Billionaire

Yet its main owner Bitanga is a billionaire who has expanded his conglomerate under the Duterte administration. Bitanga says though that he doesn’t have any control over Rappler’s editorial content. That’s total BS.

Bitanga’s holding company MRC Allied is a listed firm, which until 2013 was controlled by the late Lucio Tan Jr., the son and namesake of the billionaire ethnic Chinese tycoon Lucio Tan Sr. Its share prices had zoomed from 10 centavos per share when the Duterte regime started in July 2016 to 44 centavos at the end of 2018. (Its price though has gone down to just 16 centavos since 2019, and strangely has been posting losses of at least P50 million in the past three years.)

While usually described as “based in property,” Bitanga has companies in government-regulated industries, such as transportation, export processing zones, mining and government-contracted solar energy plants.

Bitanga even dreams of bringing out the country’s “third telco,” having bought with Salvador Zamora (the brother of mining tycoon Manuel and congressman Ronaldo) the old telecom firm PT&T, which had its 25-year franchise renewed by a Duterte-dominated Congress in 2017.

While so low-key that it is difficult to find a photo of him in the media, Bitanga is well-known among Manila’s and Cebu’s business elite, with  Lucio Tan Sr. and Cebu magnate and former Ramos-era politician Emilio “Lito” Osmeña having been his biggest business partners in the past.

Bitanga companies

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. The project, however, went bust in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Bitanga’s MRC has gone heavily into mining firms, extracting gold and copper: MRC Tampakan Mine in Davao del Sur and Sultan Kudarat;  MRC Davao Mines in Davao del Norte; MRC Boston-Cateel at Mount Diwalwal in Davao Oriental; and MRC Surigao Mines, in the so-called “Gold Belt” Marihatag, Surigao del Sur.

Energy ventures

In 2017, Bitanga’s Menlo Renewable Energy Corp. got a P3-billion service contract from the energy department for a 60-megawatt solar power plant in Naga City, Cebu. In 2017, it got a P12-billion contract, in partnership with a firm of Salvador Zamora, to build a solar energy plant in Clark City. It also took that year a 15-percent stake in the 50-MW solar energy plant in Palo, Leyte, the biggest such project in that region.

It boggles the mind that a billionaire like Bitanga, successful under Duterte’s administration, has allowed his company Rappler to savage both Duterte and the country itself. The CEO he appointed there, Ressa, travels around the world, claiming that the Philippines is a war zone, with bodies of people killed in the President’s anti-drug war
totaling 50,000, and littering Manila’s streets.

Rappler’s lies have been the main source of United States and European media’s condemnation of Duterte, as well as by the US government, the United Nations Council on Human Rights, Amnesty International and soon, by the European Parliament.

Why? Because the new medium of the internet as well as Rappler’s expensive technologies — financed by Bitanga’s money — that boosted its readership.  CIA-linked outfits as well as other US entities, which hate Duterte for his “pivot” to Asia, also have actively promoted this lying news site.

While Benjie has been an old college buddy and a friend (and Vitug a colleague since our BusinessDay years) country and my profession — journalism, a public trust — come first.

I have to condemn him for allowing Ressa and Rappler to spread lies around the world, and damage severely our country’s image globally.

Dissolution

As Rappler’s biggest stockholder, he could have simply dissolved the company as early as 2017 so as to dismantle the vehicle by which the lies have been spread.  He could have fired her and replaced her with a more competent, less profligate CEO and with an objective and experienced editor.

Didn’t it even bother him that Rappler helped politically and literally kill Corona, a fellow Atenean whom we both knew from our college days and whom he knew was a man of integrity?

And I don’t think even the Inquirer would have taken in Ressa as a columnist, and I don’t think she can really write. Without Rappler, Ressa would have been as obscure and ignored as the anti-Duterte  Inquirer columnists.

Now Ressa is the most awarded Filipino-American “journalist” ever, not for excellence in journalism, but solely because she has succeeded in convincing US media outfits that she is being suppressed by an “authoritarian.”

However, Bitanga could reveal that there is really a bigger, secret Yellow stockholder of Rappler, that he hasn’t been really in control of it, which would explain his nonchalance over the damage to the country Ressa has wrought.

There is a basis for that probability: I don’t think two diehard Coryistas, Solita Monsod and Fulgencio Factoran (who died last April), who have been in Rappler’s board of directors represent Bitanga.

I told Bitanga back in 2017* that Ressa was implicitly saying that journalists like me who are questioning her false, exaggerated casualty figures of the drug war and Duterte’s alleged suppression of the press, weren’t doing their jobs. That only she is the champion of press freedom in this country.

Bitanga did nothing.  Ressa is the Frankenstein monster he created. He should be accountable, as much as Ressa is, for the lies she and Rappler have spread about Duterte and the Philippines around the world.

*I wrote my first article on Bitanga on May 15, 2017, “Bitanga: The property and mining magnate behind Rappler.”


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