Rappler’s case: a crackdown on press freedom in the Philippines?

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The fate of Rappler, an independent online news website in the Philippines, may show whether the Philippine press will continue to enjoy freedom or face restrictions from the Duterte administration in the future. The news outfit, which has been openly critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, has come under fire from the President himself, and is also under scrutiny from different branches of the government.

Rappler took its name from a portmanteau of the worlds “rap” meaning, to talk or discuss, and “ripple,” to make waves. It started as a Facebook page in 2011, and then developed into a news website the following year.

Early this year, the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a revocation of Rappler’s operations license, citing a violation of the Philippine Constitution’s Foreign Equity Restrictions in Mass Media, claiming that it is fully foreign-owned. Rappler filed a petition for review at the Court of Appeals (CA) shortly after.

However, a few days ago, on July 26, the CA threw out this petition, since the court failed to find a grave abuse of discretion from the SEC.

The SEC had withdrawn Rappler’s certificate of incorporation due to the news outfit’s use of Philippine Depository Receipts or PDRs. Rappler issued PDRs to the Omidyar Network, which the SEC claimed in effect gave Omidyar, which is US-owned, control over Rappler’s corporate policies and other PDR holders. This, the SEC said, violated the Constitution’s supervisions concerning foreign control and ownership.

Rappler countered by saying that Omidyar was merely an investor in the company, but that it was 100 per cent locally owned. In spite of the revocation from the SEC, Rappler could still continue to operate, provided they challenged the revocation at the Court of Appeals within 15 days.

Some weeks after the revocation from the SEC, the Omidyar Network donated the PDRs from Rappler to Rappler’s chief executives and editors. Omidyar Network was founded in 2004 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, and is a philanthropic investment firm that has donated almost one billion dollars to organizations all over the world in the fields of education, governance and citizen engagement, property rights, and others.

Meanwhile, the Duterte government suggested that Rappler could continue to publish news, but only as bloggers.

The revocation of Rappler’s license to operate was greeted by many in Philippine society as an affront to press freedom. Many organizations such as the Philippine Press Institute, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, senators and congressmen, lawyer’s groups and others, all decried the revocation from the SEC as an attack on media freedom, since Rappler has been an outspoken critic of President Duterte, specifically his “drug war” policy, or crackdown on drug addicts and pushers, that has resulted in thousands of deaths in the two years since he was elected.

Spokesmen for the Philippine President  denied this, saying that had he really wanted to shut Rappler down, he would have done so by force.

However, the president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) Abdiel Dan Fajardo has said that Rappler can seek to prove that there was malice in the revocation from the SEC. “The speech of the President in his State of the Nation Address, the fact that it was the Solicitor General himself who complained about Rappler. The punishment also, the revocation, the order of the Department of Justice to the NBI to investigate for other violations – these are facts that the court cannot ignore.”

Mr. Fajardo was referring to the State of the Nation speech President Duterete made in 2017, attacking Rappler for being fully US-owned, as well as Solicitor General Jose Calida’s remarks that the Department of Justice could now investigate Rappler for possible criminal liabilities.

Mr. Fajardo further said, “The government does not openly declare that we will curtail your freedom, they will do it through other means like tax regulations, denial of business permit, to achieve indirectly what the Constitution prohibits.”

Recently, BBC News took the issue of press freedom in the Philippines a step further by reporting on how one of the biggest campaign donors of President Duterte has now become a majority shareholder of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a newspaper that had also been critical of President Duterte’s war on drugs. Another alarming factor is the President and his allies’ tirades versus news organizations that have been less than supportive of his policies.

Regarding the Court of Appeals decision last week, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said, “The decision of the Court of Appeals affirms that the Securities and Exchange Commission was correct to revoke Rappler’s registration based on its previous investigation. The decision likewise supports the Palace stance that this case does not involve press freedom, but the regulatory powers of the SEC.”

Meanwhile, Maria Ressa, Rappler’s editor-in-chief, issued a statement outlining the three issues that the court had found in their favor.

First, that the SEC’s revocation of our certificate of incorporation is wrong. Omidyar never exercised its right to the allegedly questionable clause in its Philippine Depositary Receipt (PDR) and later even waived its right under that clause, according to the CA.

Second, that the SEC failed to apply its own rules and practices to Rappler. Worse, the SEC went against the mandate of the law by not giving Rappler an opportunity to amend or correct any perceived error before revoking its certificate of incorporation.

Third, that the SEC needs to reinvestigate the case, given Omidyar’s donation of its PDRs to Rappler’s staff last February 19.”

Ms. Ressa ended her statement thanking Rappler’s readers and supporters. “We are here for the long haul – with you, inspired and reinvigorated by the mission of journalism.

For Rappler, it is business as usual.

Thank you for standing with Rappler. Thank you for standing for freedom.” 

Source: Page 1