Another attempt to censor online media in Philippines

The news website Rappler announced on 29 June that it had received a shutdown order. This is a new attack on the independent media after the Philippine government ordered the blocking of the websites Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly on 17 June. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the government to stop its intimidation tactics against the Philippines' independent media. 

“The suddenness of the censorship of media outlets is matched only by the absurdity of the accusations used to justify the shutdown and blocking,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “The judicial harassment of Rappler must stop and we call on NTC commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba to order the immediate restoration of access to these two news sites, whose only crime is to have done investigative reporting that clearly annoys the government. It is time for the government to reconnect with the rule of law and stop resorting to invectives from a bygone era.”

After the announcement of the shutdown order, Rappler's cofounder and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Maria Ressa said on 29 June: We continue to work, it is business as usual.” Rappler and its journalists have been subject to many judicial proceedings ever since its creation in 2012. Sixteen new complaints were brought against the website and its journalists in April, including complaints for online defamation.

The shutdown order was issued on 28 June by the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission, which said it was affirming an earlier decision to revoke the website’s certificates of incorporation on the grounds that it had violated “constitutional and statutory restrictions on foreign ownership in mass media.” Rappler has said it will appeal against the shutdown order.

The announcement came just two days before Rodrigo Duterte, whose deadly “war on drugs” was criticised by Rappler, is due to stand down as president. It also comes at a time of great concern for independent media in the Philippines, with news websites being blocked.

“This page is currently unavailable” is the message that anyone trying to access the Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly sites has found since 17 June, as a result of a blocking order that the National Telecommunications Commission issued on 8 June without saying anything at the time.

RSF has seen a copy of the order that the NTC issued in response to a request from Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, the government’s national security advisor. It lists 28 sites to be banned outright for being “affiliated to and [...] supporting terrorist organisations” allegedly linked to the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Censorship, arrest, execution

This is yet another example of “red-tagging” – a practice inherited from the colonial era and the Cold War, whereby journalists who do not toe the government line are branded as “subversive elements” or “reds,” which amounts to pointing them out to law enforcement as legitimate targets for censorship, arrest or summary execution.

As a result of a previous “red-tagging” campaign, “click farms” began subjecting Bulatlat to a wave of “Distributed Denial of Service” (DDoS) attacks in January 2019 – cyber-attacks in which a huge volume of connection requests are sent to a website with the aim crashing its server. RSF responded by using its Operation Collateral Freedom programme to create a Bulatlat “mirror site” to help it evade this form of online censorship.

“The DDoS attacks caused us a lot of anxiety,” Bulatlat managing editor Ronalyn Olea told RSF. “And now, this [new] state-sponsored attack is taking so much of our time. Everybody in our small media outfit is forced by circumstances to face this head on, while we would rather spend our time and resources pursuing important stories from the ground.”

Intimidating journalism

Bulatlat – whose name means “Close scrutiny” in Tagalog – was created in 2001 and has been a pioneering news site in the Philippines. Like Pinoy Weekly, it is part of the Altermydia network of alternative media outlets that are committed to independent journalism and to covering stories affecting the most marginalised sectors of Philippine society.

Journalists working with these media outlets are often the targets of trumped-up accusations. They include Eastern Vista reporter Frenchie Mae Cumpio, who has been jailed in the eastern city of Tacloban for more than two years and is facing up to 20 years in prison on a terrorism charge.

“Journalism is not terrorism,” Olea added. “Providing space for political dissenters is part of our job. Labelling this as ‘inciting to terrorism’ sets the stage for heightened media repression and gravely violates the public's right to a free press. This also has a chilling effect on the whole profession.”

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Updated on 29.06.2022