Philippines urges news site Rappler journalists to blog instead after licence is revoked

Rappler's chief executive Maria Ressa vowed to fight the ruling, which takes effect after 15 days.
Rappler's chief executive Maria Ressa vowed to fight the ruling, which takes effect after 15 days. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's government on Wednesday (Jan 17) urged reporters of a news website facing state-enforced closure to reinvent themselves as bloggers, rejecting allegations Manila was cracking down on the free press.

Mr Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque made the suggestion a day after the government brushed off appeals from media organisations to reverse its decision to withdraw the registration of the Rappler online portal.

The ruling against a news organisation that Mr Duterte derided on Tuesday as a "fake news" purveyor is seen by critics as part of his government's campaign to silence opposition to his deadly drug war that has claimed nearly 4,000 lives.

Rappler, founded in 2012, is among a handful of Philippines-based news organisations which had produced reports critical of Mr Duterte's narcotics crackdown.

"No one has been prevented from exercising free speech, no one has been banned from performing their role as journalists," Mr Roque stressed on Wednesday.

"They can still become bloggers, that is clear," he told reporters, adding that Rappler journalists would then have to seek government accreditation as bloggers.

Rappler editors could not be reached for comment, though its chief executive Maria Ressa vowed on Tuesday to fight Monday's ruling, which takes effect after 15 days.

The regulator ruled Rappler violated a constitutional ban on foreign ownership of Philippine media when the news outfit gave veto powers to a foreign fund which had bought a placement of Philippine depository receipts on Rappler shares in 2015.

Rappler maintains the investment did not constitute equity nor give the investors veto on editorial matters.

Apart from the corporate sanction, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre told reporters on Wednesday government prosecutors were also studying the possible filing of criminal charges against Rappler officials for violating an 81-year-old anti-dummy law.

The law prohibits the transfer of ownership of a business in a sector reserved for Filipinos to a foreigner.

US-based watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists on Tuesday called the Philippine government's moves a "clear and immediate danger to press freedom".

Rappler has had a testy relationship with Mr Duterte since he was elected on an anti-crime platform in 2016.

Mr Duterte vowed last year to expose Rappler's "American ownership", while suggesting it was funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency.

On Tuesday, Mr Duterte again lashed out at Rappler as he denied its report linking his chief aide to a controversial US$308 million (S$407 million) frigate acquisition project by the Philippine navy.

"Since you are a fake news outlet then I am not surprised that your articles are also fake," Mr Duterte said.

Mr Duterte has since last year also publicly attacked other media outlets including the Philippine Daily Inquirer and leading television broadcaster ABS-CBN, whose application for a franchise renewal he threatened to block.