In the last days of the Rodrigo Duterte administration, Philippines authorities have doubled down on the crackdown against media. On Tuesday, June 28, the Philippines securities regulation and company registration body, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued an order to shut down the online news platform Rappler.
The order was an iteration of an earlier order to shut down the portal, founded and run by Nobel laureate Maria Ressa. Rappler has been battling attempts by the Commission to revoke its license since 2018, over charges of the platform flouting foreign investment laws.
According to the SEC, Rappler had sold its securities to a US entity in violation of the country’s limitations on foreign ownership of media entities. Rappler argued that the 2018 order was a culmination of a highly irregular proceedings by the Commission, and that Rappler’s funding model, which has attracted investors from the US, is not illegal.
The case is based on Rappler Holdings Inc. selling securities in the form of Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs) to Omidyar Network, a US-based investment firm. After acquiring the PDRs, Omidyar later donated them back to Rappler, effectively removing any controlling shares in the company.
A 2019 Court of Appeals ruling on the matter, which upheld the 2018 SEC order, found that the donation of the PDRs back to Rappler “permanently removed the problem” that was the basis of the license revocation. The court suggested the commission review its order based on this fact.
This is not the first time Rappler has had run-ins with the Duterte government, with a 2019 “cyber libel” case under a controversial law leading to the arrest and conviction of Maria Ressa and another journalist associated with Rappler.
Legal representatives of Rappler stated that they will appeal against the order and continue their operations. In an internal memo sent out to its employees hours after the SEC order, Rappler stated that it is “business as usual,” adding that they will continue their legal battle against the order.
Apart from Rappler, other progressive websites have also faced a crackdown recently in the Philippines. Earlier this month, the National Telecommunications Commission issued an order to block 28 websites, including those of progressive media groups like Bulatlat, Pinoy Weekly, Monthly Review and CounterPunch, over unsubstantiated allegations raised by the National Security Adviser of being associated with the banned Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its affiliates.
Press freedom advocates and journalists’ unions have condemned these attacks on the press, especially targeting platforms that are critical of the government’s policies.
“Throughout the six years of the Duterte administration, we have seen lawsuits and regulatory processes used as tools to muzzle the press, and these, as much as the touted infrastructure projects form part of the Duterte legacy,” read the statement by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) responding to the revocation of Rappler’s license.
“The recent incidents create a chilling effect and are part of the deliberate efforts to discredit and stifle the press,” said Bulatlat, one of the 28 websites to be red-tagged by the Anti-Terrorism Council. “We call on our fellow journalists to resist the attacks and unite in defending and upholding press freedom and the public’s right to know,” the statement added.
Over the six years of the Duterte administration, the climate for independent journalists and alternative news platforms has worsened. Attacks on journalists have continued unabated, with 23 journalists killed in the country since Duterte took office in June 2016.
Even mainstream media organizations like ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasters in the country, had its franchise license blocked in 2020 over supposed “political bias” against president Duterte.
“Down to its last few days, the Duterte administration has shown no letup in going after perceived critics, regardless if they belong to the media whose duty it is to report the truth and scrutinize government policy,” the NUJP’s ABS-CBN chapter said in a scathing comment regarding the SEC order against Rappler.