The government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has moved to close down news website Rappler after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked the company’s license to operate as a business.
The January 11 SEC decision asserts that Rappler is “violating the constitutional and statutory Foreign Equity Restriction in Mass Media” for receiving donations from the Omidyar Network, a foundation created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
The Philippine Constitution limits mass media ownership and control to Filipino-owned corporations and Filipino citizens, but does not prohibit monetary donations from foreign foundations.
Rappler is a 100 percent Filipino-owned and managed company operating in the Philippines. In order to sustain its work, it utilizes Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs), investment tools that allow foreign partners to have commercial interests in the company.
The independent news and social media curation website has been a frequent target of attacks by the president’s online supporters for its critical coverage of his administration.
.@jnery_newsstand: “If this revocation stands, Rappler will effectively be shut down — the first time a news organization will be closed by government action since the dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972.” #Newsstand https://t.co/539n3hUZEu
— Inquirer Opinion (@Inq_Opinion) January 15, 2018
The President himself insinuated in his July 2017 State of the Nation Address that Rappler is “fully owned by Americans,” despite the fact that Rappler is owned and operated by Filipino citizens and corporations.
The largest of the company, totaling 91 percent, are owned by company president Maria Ressa, private investor Benjamin So (both Filipino nationals) and media groups Dolphin Fire Group and Hatchd Group, Inc. (both Philippines-based companies).
The move against Rappler was instigated by Solicitor General Jose Calida. Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, insisted that the SEC decision is not an attack on press freedom because it merely enforced a constitutional mandate that prohibits foreign ownership of the media. Duterte himself accused Rappler of being a “fake news outlet” just one day after the SEC cancelled the company's registration.
Rappler has contested the SEC’s allegations, saying it is “pure and simple harassment” against a company that has been transparent about its business practices and compliant with SEC requirements and regulations.
Rappler vowed to exhaust all means in fighting the order and called on its readers to defend press freedom:
We intend to not only contest this through all legal processes available to us, but also to fight for our freedom to do journalism and for your right to be heard through an independent platform like Rappler.
We will hold the line.
Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity (LODI), an organization of artists and media practitioners, sees the move as an escalation from the online bullying initiated by Duterte loyalists against Rappler and its reporters:
Who is next, Mr. President? ABS-CBN? The community journalists tagged as communists? The artists who expose your bloody drug war?
ABS-CBN is a major TV network in the Philippines. Its petition for franchise renewal is pending in Congress.
The Movement Against Tyranny (MAT), an umbrella group opposed to Duterte's war on drugs and his authoritarian tendencies, warned that the administration is targeting media outlets it cannot control or shakedown:
For a government that violates the multiple constitutional provisions on territory, checks and balances, separation of powers and the Bill of Rights, the Duterte regime is fooling no one in its “constitutionality” case against Rappler. Duterte has no credibility on constitutionality.
The Duterte government’s move against Rappler has earned widespread condemnation on social media. Here are some reactions on Twitter:
The very same Constitution Duterte craves to mutilate in order to build a dictatorship is now misused for a politically-motivated attack on @rapplerdotcom and press freedom. #FightTyranny #LabanRappler
— Tonyo Cruz (@tonyocruz) January 15, 2018
Duterte cannot control Inquirer. Inquirer was sold. Duterte cannot control Rappler. Rappler was shut down. See the pattern? Who's next?#StandWithRappler
— Isla Malasakit (@LivesMatterPH) January 15, 2018
Para sa Rappler, para sa mga pahayagang pangkampus na nired-tag ng AFP, para sa lahat ng mga mamamahayag na pinatay at ipinakulong sa ilalim ng pasistang administrasyong ito. #DefendPressFreedom pic.twitter.com/jnGUm2KKyU
— ipê #DefendPressFreedom (@pmjamilla) January 15, 2018
For Rappler, for all campus publications red-tagged by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, for all the journalists killed and imprisoned under this fascist administration #DefendPressFreedom
You don't have to like Rappler to be wary of it being shut down. The fact that a publication critical of the government is being attacked should be enough reason to question where ur govt's loyalties lie: to the people or to itself?
— CarboNATata (@natdabuet) January 15, 2018
Rappler’s topnotch journalism, particularly its coverage of the “drug war,” angered a lot of people in the Duterte regime. This is a predictable response. Outrageous and heavy-handed but predictable. https://t.co/MLXc0InqSu
— Caloy Conde (@carloshconde) January 15, 2018
It's not about the money. You just spin it that way. You want to punish and intimidate whoever's critical and doesn't bend on your will. You can call it and spin it however you want. You tried to destroy free press. You will pay. #StandWithRappler
— Owen Tan (@Ropositive) January 16, 2018
For now, Rappler is continuing to operate as it seeks to appeal the SEC ruling in court.
Editor's note: Global Voices is a grantee of the Omidyar Network.