Rappler, a leading online news website in the Philippines, is fighting a legal battle for its survival, a danger signal to media freedom in the Southeast Asian country that used to pride itself as having the most robust press in the region. It is a sword that hangs over the news website, but has not blunted its reporting.
In January, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler’s license to operate, saying it had foreign owners, a violation of the Philippine Constitution. Rappler has questioned the SEC’s decision before the Court of Appeals, the second highest court in the country, and is awaiting a verdict.
The SEC decision sparked outrage among journalists who rallied behind Rappler, where I am editor at large, and decried the threat to press freedom. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) declared “its full support to Rappler and all other independent media outfits that the state has threatened and may threaten to shut down.” It called on Filipino journalists “to unite and resist every and all attempts to silence us.” Various journalists’ groups and civil society organizations have begun a weekly Black Friday protest on university campuses.
The warning sign that President Rodrigo Duterte was on the warpath against Rappler came last year when he delivered his state of the nation address. On that day in July 2017, Rappler’s newsroom was in full work mode. Maria Ressa, the news website’s CEO and a former CNN reporter, was interviewing analysts minutes before the start of the speech and receiving live reports from Congress. The head of the social media unit weighed in on what the buzz was from Twitter and Facebook. Behind Ressa was a crescent-shaped table where the news editors were glued to their laptops, editing stories. Rappler was live-streaming the event, combining TV and digital reporting.
Early on in Duterte’s speech, he veered off the prepared text, as is his usual practice, and suddenly attacked Rappler, claiming that it is “fully owned” by Americans. He said, in a mix of English and Filipino: “Try to pierce the identity [of Rappler] and you will end up [with] American ownership … You’re supposed to be 100 percent Filipino and yet … it is fully owned by Americans.”
The newsroom erupted into a howl. This was the first time the president made a public statement against Rappler—and it was false. The Philippine Constitution bans foreign ownership of media organizations; thus Duterte’s allegation meant Rappler committed a serious offense. The fact is: Rappler is fully owned by Filipinos. Its foreign investors, Omidyar Network and North Base Media, do not have a say in the management of the company, and neither do they have voting rights. It has published stories critical of the president’s war on drugs and extensively reported on the use of state resources to promote disinformation and manipulate public opinion.
Six months later, SEC, a regulatory body, ordered the site to shut down. But Rappler continues to operate while awaiting the decision on its appeal. In its petition filed with the Court of Appeals, the online news group said the “real purpose is to silence Rappler and muzzle free expression.” The shutdown order shocked many in the media and sent chills through civil society groups and the academic community. “This is about political pressure,” Ressa told reporters, “a blow to press freedom.”
A media watchdog, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, put it in perspective: “The pattern suggests a policy of assaulting and weakening the press as an institution. It bodes ill for the survival of those basic freedom rights under the present regime, as of other rights such as dissent and protest that are enshrined as well in the Constitution,” it said in its statement.
Rappler’s case does not bode well for the country’s fragile democracy. “[This] is the kind of government act that will foment notions of a creeping dictatorship through institutional connivance,” wrote Mel Sta. Maria, dean of the Far Eastern University Institute of Law. “The tension between the press and the government must not wane.”
Duterte is intolerant of dissent. He has jailed his foremost critic, Senator Leila De Lima, on trumped up drug charges and fired a bureaucrat who did not agree with him on drug-use statistics. Recently, he suspended the second highest ranking official of the Ombudsman, the government’s frontline anti-corruption office, for starting a probe into the president’s assets statements.
The media are a favorite target. Duterte has scathingly criticized the owners of the leading newspaper, Philippine Daily Inquirer, for evading taxes, threatening to file cases against them. This has forced the Prietos, the family that owned the paper, to sell to a wealthy businessman close to Duterte. He has also vowed to block the renewal of the franchise of the largest TV network in the country, ABS-CBN. It is Congress that approves broadcast franchises, a branch of government Duterte controls.
The legal battle is not the only hurdle. Rappler also contends with accusations from Duterte that it is a “fake news outlet.” After the SEC ordered the revocation of Rappler’s license, the online news site ran a story about the president’s aide supposedly interfering in a huge supply deal of the Navy. An angry Duterte lashed out at Rappler and called its articles “fake.”
Duterte’s tirades have not cowed reporting and journalists are pushing back, calling out the president whenever he spews out false information. Ellen Tordesillas of Vera Files, an online magazine that fact-checks Duterte, says: “The worrisome part is that most of the sources of disinformation are being perpetrated by government officials on taxpayers’ money. And the number 1 source of fake news is President Duterte himself.” The media are not alone. Civil society activists have joined reporters in this fight.
With the president threatening and undermining the media, Philippine news organizations have come together to fight for their credibility and untrammeled reporting. This is the most severe challenge the Philippine press faces since the 1970s when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos ruled the country.
This article has been edited to identify it as an Opinion piece, to clarify the description of Rappler, and to include the fact that the author is editor at large for Rappler, originally stated on the contributor’s page, in the body of the text as well.