The news company Rappler was ordered Wednesday to shut down, a day before President Rodrigo Duterte is due to leave office, but its boss, Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, vowed to keep the website running.
Ressa has been a vocal critic of Duterte and the deadly drug war he launched in 2016, triggering what media advocates say is a grinding series of criminal charges, probes, and online attacks against her and Rappler.
The latest blow was delivered by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In a statement Wednesday, it confirmed the “revocation of the certificates of incorporation” of Rappler for violating “constitutional and statutory restrictions on foreign ownership in mass media.”
Rappler said the decision “effectively confirmed the shutdown” of the company and vowed to appeal, describing the proceedings as “highly irregular.”
But Ressa was characteristically defiant, vowing the news site would continue to operate as they followed the legal process.
“We continue to work, it is business as usual,” Ressa told reporters, adding “we can only hope for the best” under Duterte’s successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
The International Center for Journalists has urged the government to reverse its order to shut down Rappler.
“This legal harassment not only costs Rappler time, money and energy. It enables relentless and prolific online violence designed to chill independent reporting,” ICFJ said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Rappler can get a temporary restraining order from a court higher than the SEC, which would stop the order for its closure or hold it in abeyance, said Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III.
“We should follow court processes and hierarchy,” stressed Pimentel, a lawyer and former Senate President – and former ally of Duterte, who gives way to Marcos Jr. today.
Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros said it was “truly deplorable that this administration continues to find new ways of threatening legitimate news organizations not to exercise press freedom.”
Stressing the plight of journalists under the Duterte administration, Hontiveros also lamented the plan of the incoming administration to accredit bloggers and vloggers to cover government events.
“And while many registered news outfits are being crushed, unaccountable and insensitive vloggers and internet journalists have been given accreditation to cover the most important events in government. This only sows distrust and cultivates a tame coverage,” said Hontiveros
The public needs “critical, honest, and fact-based journalism,” the opposition senator said.
“Silencing important media voices like Rappler, and ABS-CBN before it, not only affects the flow of information for the day,” she added.
These assaults on the independent press and other perceived ‘threats,’ Hontiveros said, also chip away at our democracy.
“This is a telling blow against press freedom in the country. This is more than the closure of a news organization. This act sends a chilling effect that practically threatens other media practitioners,” she added.
Rappler has had to fight for survival as Duterte’s government accused it of violating a constitutional ban on foreign ownership in securing funding, as well as tax evasion.
It has also been accused of cyber libel — a new criminal law introduced in 2012, the same year Rappler was founded.
Duterte has attacked the website by name, calling it a “fake news outlet”, over a story about one of his closest aides.
The news portal is accused of allowing foreigners to take control of its website through its parent Rappler Holdings’ issuance of “depositary receipts”.
Under the constitution, investment in media is reserved for Filipinos or Filipino-controlled entities.
The case springs from the 2015 investment from the US-based Omidyar Network, which was established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Omidyar later transferred its investment in Rappler to the site’s local managers to stave off efforts by Duterte to shut it down.
Ressa, who is also a US citizen, and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October for their efforts to “safeguard freedom of expression”.
Ressa is fighting at least seven court cases, including an appeal against a conviction in a cyber libel case, for which she is on bail and faces up to six years in prison.
Rappler faces about eight cases, Ressa said.
The SEC contends that Rappler violated the Constitution because of investments in its Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR). When Rappler appealed the case to the Court of Appeals (CA) in 2018, it noted that the so-called negative foreign control found objectionable by the SEC had been addressed.
It asked the SEC to reevaluate its take on Rappler, pointing to the country’s Corporation Code, wherein a clause allows companies to have a grace period to cure their alleged defects.
“Rappler has acted in good faith to address the SEC’s objections. That the SEC chose to affirm its earlier order despite this compliance is worrisome for other members of the press,” the news site said.
“Other media entities have also used PDRs and bought them back from investors in 2020. The SEC did not demand their closure based on the same grounds,” Rappler added.
“We understand and fully appreciate sincere efforts to implement the law. But these efforts must be made in the spirit of fairness and fitness to the situation at hand. Because the law is a tool of justice and right for common good, not vindictiveness to please a privileged few and an excuse to muzzle the press,” it said. With AFP