NET25 and SMNI propaganda provokes questions on their role in spreading disinformation

ALREADY INFLUENTIAL in the Filipino community, the reach of some religious groups is amplified by the media organizations they own or operate. The bloc-voting of some religious groups has too often decided the results of Philippine elections, while other religious radio stations have been instrumental in ousting a dictator.

As in previous elections, some of these groups openly supported candidates and urged their followers to do the same this year. However, their media organizations were brazenly partisan before, during and after the elections to the extent of spreading disinformation and propaganda.

In the post-campaign period, their support for the yet to be installed administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is adding to the perception that it is averse to media independence and criticism by providing only selective access to mainstream news organizations. 

On May 26, only NET25, Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), and GMA-7 were invited to the first post-proclamation press conference of the president-elect. Marcos Jr.’s spokesperson claimed that the three media organizations were simply granted the interviews they had requested during the campaign season. But Rappler revealed that the Marcos Jr. camp had issued a media advisory that the “BBM Media Center” would be closed that day.

CMFR is particularly wary of NET25 and SMNI, two TV networks whose coverage stood out for their extreme partisanship during and after Marcos Jr.’s campaign. SMNI gained popularity amongst Marcos supporters when the news company hosted a Presidential debate on February 15. It was the only election debate attended by Marcos Jr. His supporters claimed that the news organization was unbiased, despite the fact that its founder, Pastor Apollo Quiboloy had already endorsed Marcos Jr. and his running mate Sara Duterte on February 1, weeks before the debate was held. 

On the other hand, NET25, the Iglesia Ni Cristo’s (INC) channel, became popular after it started attacking Vice President Leni Robredo, Marcos Jr.’s rival for the presidency, with one-sided, opinion-laden and blatantly biased pieces in the guise of news reports. NET25’s attacks on Robredo became more apparent after INC founder Felix Manalo endorsed Marcos Jr.’s candidacy on May 3.

NET25’s personal attacks

In May, journalists and netizens called out NET25 for airing a personal attack masked as a “news report.” CMFR jeered its May 23 “report” that called Vice President Leni Robredo and her daughters ‘celebrity wannabes.’ The report aired on its news program Mata ng Agila

NET25 uploads all its content on its social media platforms. As of May 2022, its YouTube channel had about 534 thousand subscribers; and its videos have already reached over 70.8 million combined views on the platform. Meanwhile, the broadcast station also has 1.1 million followers on Facebook.

Following the May 23 report backlash, CMFR reviewed NET25’s YouTube content since the start of the campaign period on February 8. 

The news program had several reports that were poorly sourced from February to April. But its pieces in favor of the Marcoses and against Robredo started after the INC’s May 3 endorsement of Marcos Jr. Its March 3 report used the word “supporters” to refer to the people backing Robredo’. The program, after the endorsement, called these supporters “pinklawan,” a derogatory term popularized by the supporters of other presidential candidates. 

When people began noticing the pattern of hate in Mata ng Agila‘s “reporting,” they started flagging their videos on YouTube. YouTube blocked the program’s May 16 newscast due to its “inappropriate content” and for violating the platform’s community guidelines. The program attacked YouTube for alleged censorship and for meddling in Philippine media, and called on viewers to campaign for the program’s unblocking.

On May 18, the news program claimed that due to “public pressure”, YouTube had unblocked the episode. 

The following were the outrightly biased pieces against Robredo and her supporters after the May 3 endorsement: 

Targeting other media organizations

NET25 also targeted other media organizations. These attacks also surged after the INC endorsed Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte.

NET25 called Rappler one of the “least trusted” online media sites, and a “fake fact-checker,” among other unsubstantiated claims. It also alleged that TV5 had connections with the Robredo camp and is a fake news peddler. Its attacks on both were as follows:


News5, May 6

NET25’s history and ties to the Iglesia ni Cristo

NET25 is a Philippine television network currently available for free on analog and digital TV, YouTube, and is carried by several cable operators. After its launch in 1999 it was acquired in 2000 by its current owner and operator, Eagle Broadcasting Corporation (EBC). EBC is a commercial subsidiary broadcasting network controlled by religious group INC. The sect practices “bloc voting”— church leaders endorse candidates to their membership. 

EBC’s chair, Theoben Jerdan C. Orosa, is legal counsel for the INC and son-in-law of current INC Executive Minister, Eduardo V. Manalo. EBC is a sister company of the INC’s religious broadcast arm, Christian Era Broadcasting Service International, Inc. (CEBSI). 

In 2015, NET25 went through a secular rebrand. The network’s slogan was changed from “I Am One With EVM”–EVM corresponds to the initials of their executive minister–to “I am One With 25”. The network continues to style itself as secular up to the present, despite its leadership’s  widely-known ties to INC.

Aside from its flagship newscast “Mata ng Agila”, other news, current affairs, sports, and entertainment programming, and Radyo Agila’s “TeleRadyo”, NET25 also airs all INC religious programs broadcast via CEBSI’s INC TV channel. 

Before NET25, SMNI was already spreading propaganda

SMNI is controversial for a number of reasons, and among these is its frequent red-tagging, false claims, and attacks on other media networks. 

Red-tagging is the labeling of groups or individuals as having ties with the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF). This dangerous form of harassment has been used as a means to silence government critics, activists, journalists, and opposition candidates. 

During the campaign period, SMNI aired multiple reports and interviews that red-tagged certain candidates. 

In the following list of videos, opposition candidates Robredo and the Makabayan bloc, composed of Bayan Muna, ACT Teachers, Gabriela Women’s Party, Kabataan, and Anakpawis, were red-tagged on SMNI. 

SMNI’s Facebook content linking several groups to the CPP-NPA was used by other accounts, groups, and pages identified as part of a “red-tagging network” to push their agenda. This amplified SMNI‘s social media reach and made it the core source of this kind of content. As of this writing, SMNI News has 1.7 million followers on Facebook. In April, its page was flagged by Facebook for sharing posts that “violate Community Standards.”

SMNI also published its newscast on YouTube, reaching around 1.17 million subscribers, and has a total of 473.9 million combined views of all its video content.

Subject of Fact-checks

Apart from red-tagging, SMNI also reported dubious information about critics and rivals of the Duterte administration and the Marcoses when Marcos Jr. was endorsed by Quiboloy. The “information” included Marcos Jr.’s fake credentials and gossip about Robredo. 

SMNI’s spreading misinformation became the subject of several fact-checks by the media and other fact-checking organizations.

As early as February, fact-checks by Altermidya, Baguio Chronicle, PressONE.PH, Interaksyon, VERA Files, FactRakers, Akademiya at Bayan Kontra Disimpormasyon at Dayaan (ABKD), Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services (IDEALS), and Fact Check Philippines had uncovered false claims by SMNI’s broadcasts and on social media through its anchors and guests.

The propaganda peddlers

The misinformation in SMNI was primarily sourced from some government officials who host or co-anchor programs. The same people used their airtime to further government propaganda:

  • Usec. Lorraine Badoy, spokesperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), is a co-anchor of SMNI’s Laban Kasama ang Bayan program. For more than two hours per episode, Badoy along with her co-anchors spew deadly allegations, accusing civilians as members of CPP-NPA. Badoy is facing at least 11 complaints for red-tagging activists, progressive groups and human rights defenders.
  • Mike Defensor, AnaKalusugan partylist representative, and Rodante Marcoleta, SAGIP partylist representative, host SMNI’s Point of Order program. The two legislators, who were among those who denied ABS-CBN’s renewal of franchise, used the SMNI program to revisit ABS-CBN’s alleged violations, despite government officials stating that the giant media network had already complied with tax requirements, labor standards and franchise terms.

    Defensor lost the mayoralty race against Quezon City Mayor-elect Joy Belmonte. Marcoleta, who ran under Marcos Jr.’s slate, withdrew his candidacy a few weeks before the elections. He is now being eyed as Energy Secretary.

Anchors of SMNI news programs also gave space to other government officials or their supporters to air false claims and did not correct these. For example, Salvador Panelo wrongly claimed that there were no calls for unity from Robredo; Larry Gadon falsely described the Bangui windmills as Marcos Jr.’s project. 

SMNI reporters were also the sources of false information. Anchor Mike Abe on February 15 claimed that Robredo had urged that she be interviewed by only one media personality in the SMNI debate. The same anchor also claimed that Marcos Jr. is an economist.

SMNI history and Quiboloy’s endorsement 

SMNI, owned by Swara Sug Media Corporation (SSMC) is the broadcasting arm of Philippine television evangelist Apollo Quiboloy. Apart from TV, it also maintains a network of radio stations under the “Sonshine Radio” brand.

According to its website, SMNI started with the radio program “Pagsusi sa Kamatuoran” on radio stations DXDC and DXUM. In 1992, SMNI launched its first TV program, “The Hour of Truth,” that aired on IBC and ABS-CBN stations in Visayas and Mindanao in 1995.

In 2022, it was licensed by the government to operate six free-to-air television channels in cities across the country. NTC confirmed it granted Quiboloy’s SSMC, operating as SMNI, a provisional authority to install, operate, and maintain a digital television broadcasting system in Metro Manila using Channel 43. Channel 43 was previously assigned to Amcara Broadcasting Network, which had a block-time arrangement with ABS-CBN to air its TV Plus programs.

But Quiboloy has long been involved in scandals including land grabbing cases, a custody dispute, attempt to smuggle cash out of Hawaii, and sex trafficking women and minors, landing him on the most wanted list of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (US-FBI). Rappler’s investigative series also featured ex-members of his church, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ’s (KOJC), who allegedly suffered emotional, psychological, sexual, and financial abuse from the dubious pastor.

Role of religious-owned media
NET25 calls itself a “center of values”, while SMNI is a self-proclaimed “nation-builder” and truth-teller. But unfortunately, these networks have allowed themselves to go against basic morals and values and spread disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech.

They would do well to reflect on these self-descriptions and to practice what they preach. The public and the rest of the media must continue to expose and oppose how the unethical practice by such media organizations spreads disinformation and undermines democratic discourse and decision-making.