Maria Ressa’s Rappler news site ordered to shut by Philippine regulators

Ms Maria Ressa has been a vocal critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the deadly drug war he launched in 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA – Philippine regulators have moved once more to shut down Rappler, a news site co-founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, just a day before President Rodrigo Duterte – who had been relentlessly attacking both Ms Ressa and Rappler – leaves office.

Ms Ressa, Rappler’s chief executive, told reporters that “it is business as usual” for her newsroom.

“We’ve gone through this before. You’ve seen the way we’ve reacted to it. We have plans A to Z… We’ll continue to hold the line. We’ll continue to report, and we’ll continue to demand access,” she said.

In a 29-page decision handed down on Wednesday (June 29), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) affirmed an order it first issued in January 2018 finding Rappler liable for violating the Philippine Constitution’s limit on foreign ownership of media companies, which effectively means the business has to be shut down.

The case had already reached the Court of Appeals, which ruled in July 2018 that while the SEC was right, Rappler had already corrected the infraction. It then sent the case back to the SEC.

Lawyer Francis Lim said Rappler would ask the SEC to reconsider, even as he described this latest order as “highly irregular”.

Asked if the commission could forcibly shut Rappler’s newsroom by padlocking its offices, Mr Lim replied: “We’ve tried to the best of our ability to anticipate all situations, including the worst-case scenario.”

Ms Ressa said she and her staff were “stunned” by the SEC’s decision, although they were already expecting it.

“These ‘new normals’ should not be normal. We should demand better and that is what we will continue to do,” she said.

The SEC order came down just a day before Mr Duterte steps down as president and Mr Ferdinand Marcos Jr takes his place.

Both Mr Duterte and Mr Marcos Jr have chafed at Rappler’s coverage of them, claiming the site had been lopsided and skewed heavily towards their rivals.

Mr Duterte has been attacking Rappler since he took office in 2016. He was particularly angered by a story the site published accusing his closest aide of corruption over a navy procurement deal.

He had since called Rappler a “fake news outlet” and for a time, barred its reporters from his press conferences.

His supporters had also piled onto Rappler, mounting a vicious, coordinated online attack on Ms Ressa.

A Rappler employee at the news site's office in Manila on June 29, 2022. Rappler was ordered to shut on the same day. PHOTO: AFP

Mr Marcos Jr had also taken issue with Rappler, privately complaining that the site’s coverage of him has been overwhelmingly negative.

But Ms Ressa is hoping that as president, Mr Marcos Jr would have a more favourable view of Rappler and journalists in general.

“Where he goes, we all go. So who wants to see this? There are accountability issues that I hope he deals with. But I hope that in the end… we can collaborate to make things better… to strengthen facts (and) demand accountability,” she said.

Eight cases had been filed against Rappler under Mr Duterte, all with the goal of seeing the site shut down.

Apart from the SEC case, Ms Ressa and Rappler are currently facing five tax evasion cases, one accusing it of violating anti-dummy laws, and cyber libel, for which Ms Ressa is on bail and faces up to six years in prison.

This latest threat to shut down Rappler came just days after Internet regulators, acting on a request by the country’s top national security official, blocked access to two news websites the military had accused of as communist propagandists.

The two sites had been mostly publishing stories concerning labour unions, farmers' groups and other sectors they regard as “under-represented” in the mainstream news cycle.

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