Duterte draws flak for 'muzzling' critical news site

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses a press conference after the closing ceremony of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Manila on Nov 14, 2017.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses a press conference after the closing ceremony of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Manila on Nov 14, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

But Philippine leader says he had no hand in regulator's order to revoke licence of pioneering website Rappler

President Rodrigo Duterte came under fire yesterday from journalists and human rights activists, after regulators moved to shut down a leading online news outlet critical of his brutal war against drugs.

Critics said the order by the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to revoke the licence of Rappler, a popular and pioneering news website, was the latest in a growing effort to muzzle news organisations that had dared to go toe-to-toe with Mr Duterte.

A defiant Mr Duterte responded by singling out a Rappler reporter for some salty language during a speech but he said he "never had a hand" in the SEC's decision.

But he did admit going after other media organisations "who have been attacking us below the belt".

His spokesman insisted at a separate news briefing that Mr Duterte "had nothing to do" with the SEC's decision.

"It was unfair of Maria Ressa to say that they're victims of an attack on press freedom because they're not," said Mr Harry Roque, referring to Rappler's founder, a former CNN bureau chief.

He said the SEC had carried out "a legal decision based on existing jurisprudence and based on interpretation of the Constitution made by an independent body that the President does not control".

The SEC had found that Rappler had violated constitutional restrictions on ownership and control of mass media.

Under the country's Constitution, mass media entities must be 100 per cent owned by Filipinos. Rappler violated that rule when it received money from Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, a US citizen, the SEC ruled.

Rappler denied wrongdoing and has said publicly that Omidyar's investment was made through depository receipts that let companies invest in local media without gaining ownership.

Mr Duterte has not shied away from going after news organisations for critical coverage of his administration.

The owners of top newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer sold their majority stake last July, after he threatened to jail them over back rentals purportedly owed for the use of a prime government property. A business tycoon who backed Mr Duterte's 2016 election bid later disclosed he was buying the Inquirer.

Mr Duterte also threatened to block leading television broadcaster ABS-CBN's application to renew its operating franchise, a permit that requires congressional approval, over what he saw was lopsided coverage of his campaign.

Journalists and human rights activists here and abroad have rallied around Rappler.

The Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility said the decision "can only be interpreted as the Duterte regime's punishment for a news organisation doing the fundamental journalistic responsibility of reporting the truth and holding the powerful to account".

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said stripping Rappler of its registration was tantamount to killing the news site, and would have a "chilling effect" on all media organisations.

Amnesty International called the decision "an alarming attempt to silence independent journalism", describing Rappler as "fearless in holding those in power to account".

The Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights warned that the case "underscores a wider regional trend of escalating harassment of media professionals and efforts to limit press freedom". These include the detention of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar, and the closure of The Cambodia Daily newspaper and over a dozen radio stations in Cambodia in August and September last year.

Public opinion on the issue is split.

"The SEC decision is an attack on this common responsibility to get at the truth," Mr John Nery wrote in a column for the Inquirer.

But Ms Cora Guidote, a public relations executive, said in a Facebook post: "Spinning this as harassment is warped… What the SEC is making accountable is the institution and its members of the board."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2018, with the headline 'Duterte draws flak for 'muzzling' critical news site'. Print Edition | Subscribe