Rappler vows to fight for press freedom in the Philippines following site closure decision

The Philippine government has ordered the closure of online news site Rappler following its vocal criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The independent news site, which was founded by Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa in 2012, has had its media registration revoked by the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission over alleged violations of foreign ownership.

However, both Rappler and fellow Filipino journalists have called the move an attack on the Philippines’ already fragile press freedom.

Maria Ressa: “This is a moment we will say we stand for press freedom”.

Ressa, in a live-streamed press conference yesterday, claimed Rappler’s journalists had faced an 18-month-long campaign of harassment from supporters of Duterte’s government, adding that the site was prepared to defend itself in court.

“We’re not closing down,” she said. “First of all I’d like to say that the speed at which this has happened and the kind of attacks that we get show a political nature of this decision, and we will be challenging it in court.

“I guess this is the last part of the kind of harassment that journalists have had in the last year or so. In Rappler, it began a year and a half ago,”

“The SEC did not follow procedure. [They] essentially issued an order to shut us down without giving us an opportunity to respond to the panel. We will prepare to fight. Our lawyers are preparing our case. It is business as usual.

She added: “This is a moment we will say we stand for press freedom”.

During her speech, Ressa pointed to an ongoing wave of vitriol directed at Filipino journalists by bloggers and social media commentators for reporting critically of Duterte and his internationally-condemned war on drugs.

She said: “In social media, anyone who asks a question or questions extrajudicial killings; journalists, anyone, gets crippled and bashed. That’s helped create a chilling effect… this is something we have brought up to Facebook itself. You see massive echo chambers created … this ecosystem was used to cripple journalists.”

The SEC, a government agency tasked with enforcing securities and investment laws in the Philippines, however claimed Rappler used a “deceptive scheme” to fund the company.

One of the site’s investors is the Omidyar Network, a company set up by eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar. The investor used a “depositary receipt” – commonly found in many Filipino media companies – to fund Rappler and thereby obtain “unissued shares”. The SEC claimed this scheme violated foreign ownership and control laws.

However, Ressa said the funding was comparable to betting on a horse at a race. “You bet on a horse – that doesn’t mean you can tell the horse what to eat or who the jockey is or anything else, because all you have is the bet…. You can’t tell the owner how to take care of the horse,” she said.

The decision has sparked an outcry within the Philippines from fellow journalists and social media. John Nery, associate editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer called it “grossly disproportionate”.

“It makes sense only if you pretend that, by squinting really hard, the provision in question negates the other, more fundamental constitutional guarantees. This new blade thrust into press freedom now also carries the SEC’s DNA,” he wrote.

The Inquirer itself was an he centre of controversy last year after it was sold to San Miguel owner Ramon Ang following a succession of attacks on Duterte’s government.

Others have also taken to Twitter to decry the news.

“We respect the S.E.C. decision that Rappler contravenes the strict requirements of the law that the ownership and management of mass media entities must be wholly owned by Filipinos,” a presidential spokesman, Harry Roque, told the New York Times.


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