Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is asking the United Nations, UNESCO and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take a stand against the Philippine government’s decision to close the country’s leading independent news website, Rappler, on trumped-up legal grounds.

In a flagrant violation of media freedom, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government announced on 15 January that it was revoking the website’s licence on the grounds that it was foreign-owned. The Philippine Justice Secretary reiterated yesterday that it is also considering judicial proceedings against Rappler. RSF voices its full support for the website’s journalists, who fear they could be raided at any time.

“The decision to close Rappler is fraught with danger, hence the urgency of referring it to these international bodies,” RSF deputy director-general Antoine Bernard said. “We are very concerned about the safety of its journalists and the protection of their sources, especially as Rappler is well known for the quality of its investigative reporting.”

The Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has meanwhile produced no hard evidence to support its accusations against Rappler and the company that owns it, Rappler Holding Corp. According to the SEC, they exist “with no other purpose than to effect a deceptive scheme to circumvent the constitution,” specifically, section 11 of article XVI, which says: “The ownership of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines.”

Financial transparency

“For more than a year, Duterte’s notorious troll army has been spreading the rumour that Rappler is 100% foreign-owned,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “The president is clearly trying to exploit nationalist sentiment in order to silence a media outlet that annoys his clique. But the legal grounds offered for this decision are contradicted by the hard facts.”

A quick look at Rappler’s capital structure in the report of RSF’s Philippine media ownership monitoring shows that it is 100% Philippine owned. Rappler Holding Corp is an example of financial transparency. It has received some foreign investment, including from Omidyar Network and North Base Media, but this has been in the form of Philippine Depositary Receipts that do not imply any form of ownership.

RSF supports Rappler’s decision to appeal against this iniquitous decision, one based entirely on false information.

With a population that is one of the most active on social networks of any in the world, the Philippines is a key market for Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, these California-based social network giants have often been criticized for the false information circulating on their networks, much of it coming from President Duterte’s trolls.

Rappler founder and editor Maria Ressa has long been urging Facebook’s management not to allow the circulation of deliberately false information that is “hurting democracy around the world.”

In a sign of the Duterte government’s contempt for journalistic freedom and independence, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said yesterday that the website’s reporters “can still become bloggers, that is clear.”

The Philippines is ranked 127th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 18.01.2018