The effort to unseat Chief Justice Renato Corona has pitted two unlikely parties—the 400-year-old University of Santo Tomas and startup online news outfit Rappler—against each other.

Rappler, which is led by Maria Ressa, former ABS-CBN News chief and CNN bureau chief, gained online prominence following the Dec. 22 story “UST breaks rules to favor Corona,” in which veteran journalist Marites Vitug questioned Corona’s UST law doctorate.

UST did not issue a statement until after the Philippine Daily Inquirer published the Rappler piece as its banner story on New Year’s Day. The University’s statement, aside from saying that no rules were broken for Corona’s Ph.D., criticized Rappler’s exercise of online journalism.

The Inquirer sought UST’s side only after publishing the Rappler piece, and printed a story based on UST’s statement on the same space last Jan. 2. Lito Zulueta, Inquirer editor, UST journalism professor, and adviser of the Varsitarian, was asked by the Inquirer desk to seek UST’s side and write the story.

“We wish Marites Vitug and the Philippine Daily Inquirer have observed the rules on objectivity and fairness — for the former when she wrote her online article, and for the latter when it published her article virtually word for word in its New Year’s edition yet, even adopting her rather judgmental title as banner headline. Miss Vitug did not make a disclosure that she has had a run-in with the Supreme Court and may have an axe to grind against it. The Inquirer did not get the side of the University and rushed to print with the online article; it merely repeated Miss Vitug’s claim that the University didn’t respond to her queries,” the UST statement said.

UST said it did not immediately reply to Rappler, which had merged with Vitug’s online magazine Newsbreak, as it was “at a loss” over how to deal with online news outfits. “Is that a legitimate news organization? What individuals and entities fund Newsbreak and Rappler? Do these outfits have editors? Who challenged Miss Vitug’s article before it went online so as to establish its accuracy, objectivity and fairness? Why was there no prior disclosure made? What gate-keeping measures does online journalism practice?” the UST statement said.

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The Rappler story questioned why Corona was given a doctorate in civil law without writing a dissertation, not taking into account UST’s status as an autonomous institution of higher learning, and even if two academics it had interviewed implied that UST was within its bounds. Corona graduated in April 2011 in ceremonies in Intramuros, kneeling before the Rector who conferred the degree.

Former UP law dean Pacifico Agabin told Rappler UST had the leeway to waive the dissertation, while Antonio La Viña, dean of the Ateneo School of Government, noted that most – but not all – universities require a dissertation defense.

Meanwhile, quoted a former president of Notre Dame University, Fr. Eliseo Mercado, as pointing out that UST had Level 3 accreditation, which gave it freedom to modify its academic requirements. Mercado noted that Corona had finished “course work with excellent grades, passed the comprehensive with honors, wrote a scholarly paper, published the said paper and delivered the same in public lecture with high accolade.”

“Many universities are doing this now instead of writing dissertations that simply gather moss and cobwebs in the Grad school libraries … People know that there are but very few doctoral dissertations [that have] come out of the files of many graduates schools. Published and read Ph.D. dissertations are more of exceptions than the rule!” he said.

Vitug disclosed in her article that her search for Corona’s dissertation was not initially for a news story. “What started out as a routine request for Corona’s dissertation for a book on the Supreme Court that we are finishing led to this story,” she said.

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Vitug also claimed that Corona was an “overstaying” student, and was therefore not qualified to receive summa cum laude honors. Vitug claimed Corona had worked on his degree for about a decade, when he should have finished in five years to qualify for honors.

But according to the UST Graduate School handbook, “[The] Ph.D., as a general rule, may be completed in five years and the maximum residency is seven years. Students who overstayed beyond the maximum residency will be required to reactivate their coursework.”

Graduate School Dean Lilian Sison said in an email to the Varsitarian that Corona was enrolled in the program for a total of seven years, or within the maximum residency.

Vitug’s story said Corona’s academic record had previously been questioned, citing the book “Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court.” The story did not mention that Vitug was also the author of the book.

In a span of 48 hours, after UST’s statement to the Inquirer, Rappler ran five stories critical of UST: “UST: Corona’s lecture enough for PhD,” “What we asked UST about Corona’s thesis,” “UST and my long wait,” “Online journalism is the future,” and “Who’s lying? UST or Corona?” It also uploaded a user-contributed caricature of UST’s stance on Rappler.

For Maria Ressa, Rappler’s CEO, the issue wouldn’t have escalated if UST had better crisis management. She added that Vitug and Purple Romero, the researcher of the story, sought interviews with UST officials for six months.

The story “What we asked about UST about Corona’s thesis” showed the exchange of emails between her and different UST offices. “In the end, the issue was that a question was asked and the lack of answer became the story and highlighted the problems,” said Ressa.

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In a letter to the editor published by the Inquirer, Ressa said “the story was pursued, written and published to raise questions about possible excesses and abuses, complicity in the degradation of academic standards, and false claims about academic excellence.”

Zulueta, meanwhile, was criticized by Luis Teodoro, former dean of the UP College of Mass Communication, for “conflict of interest.” Teodoro, in his Jan. 6 column in BusinessWorld, cited Zulueta’s connections with UST.

“Two issues are more relevant to ethical media practice in the present instance. The first is whether the UST attempt to reply to Vitug through an article written by one of its alumni (Zulueta) did not make it a party to a conflict of interest between, on the one hand, its interest in protecting and enhancing its image before the public, and on the other, the citizens’ right to an unbiased, accurate, and fair report on a matter of public concern,” he said.

Zulueta said in a letter to BusinessWorld that the order for him to write the Inquirer story came from the editor in chief herself, Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, and that his Jan. 2 story went through journalistic “gate-keeping.”

“And if I ‘slanted’ my copy to favor UST, it went through the editors and whatever ‘public relations’ tendencies it might have were checked. In short, my report went through the editorial wringer,” Zulueta said.

Zulueta also noted similarities between Teodoro’s column and a statement by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) defending Vitug, suggesting that Teodoro committed self-plagiarism.

Teodoro responded in another column last Jan. 13 that he had written the CMFR statement and turned it into a column for BusinessWorld. In a second rejoinder, Zulueta pointed out that CMFR itself had condemned self-plagiarism, “which happens ‘when the author passes off as original something he or she has written in the past.’” Lorenzo Luigi T. Gayya


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