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Philippine Government Targets ‘Rappler’ for Closure

Foreign Ownership Allegations Mask Vendetta Against Critical Website

Journalists work at the Rappler office in Metro Manila, Philippines, January 15, 2018. © 2018 Dondi Tawatao/Reuters

The Philippine government has ratcheted up its attack on media freedom, threatening the closure of Rappler is a start-up media platform founded in 2012 that has published numerous investigative stories, including many pieces critical of the Duterte administration.

The Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) today announced the revocation of Rappler’s Certificate of Incorporation, or operating license. Although there is an appeal process for SEC decisions, the agency has the power to immediately enforce closure of Rappler’s premises and operations if it so chooses. The SEC ruled that a 2015 investment in Rappler by United States-based Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, was a “deceptive scheme” that violated both the Philippine constitution as well as SEC regulations that forbid foreign ownership and management of mass media. The SEC also voided the Omidyar Network investment, describing it as a “fraudulent transaction.” (Full disclosure: The Omidyar family has been a longtime donor to Human Rights Watch.)

If Duterte succeeds in silencing Rappler, it will have a profound chilling effect on Philippine media at a time when free press is more urgently needed than ever.

This decision was not wholly unexpected. Six months ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte publicly attacked Rappler by falsely alleging it was “fully owned by Americans.” Rappler’s management dismissed the SEC’s move as “pure and simple harassment.” Rappler insists that Omidyar Network’s investment through the purchase of Philippine Depositary Receipts does “not indicate ownership,” and intends to appeal the SEC ruling.

The revocation of Rappler’s operating license follows months of withering criticism and harassment of the media outlet by the Duterte government and his supporters. That criticism has centered on Rappler’s investigative reporting on issues ranging from the deployment of pro-Duterte paid internet trolls and bots to sow misinformation on social media, to an ongoing feature series about the Duterte government’s murderous “war on drugs.” Duterte and his supporters have also targeted the news channel ABS-CBN as well as the Philippine Daily Inquirer, both known for their in-depth investigative reporting.

The government’s move to shutter Rappler suggests a sinister use of state regulatory processes to stifle critical media voices. The Philippine media is just the latest in a growing list of institutions and individuals – including United Nations officials – who have been vilified by Duterte for seeking accountability for human rights violations. Duterte has sought to quash any meaningful inquiries into alleged crimes committed by police and their agents in the “war on drugs” that has killed thousands – a campaign the president has openly endorsed.

If Duterte succeeds in silencing Rappler, it will have a profound chilling effect on Philippine media freedom, encouraging self-censorship by reporters and media outlets fearful of government reprisals for critical reporting at a time when the watchdog role of a free press is more urgently needed than ever. 

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