Another independent voice is silenced in Duterte’s war on the media

January 16, 2018
Photo: Paul Papadimitriou/flickr.

The Philippines’s third-largest online news site, Rappler, had its certificate of incorporation revoked by the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in a ruling handed down on Monday.

The troubling news follows a series of attacks by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on media outlets that have published critical reports about his government’s extrajudicial killings of drug suspects—described by one critic (who has now been jailed) as “murder with impunity.”

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Along with broadcaster ABS-CBN and national newspaper the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler has been a vocal critic of Duterte’s regime. In October 2016, it published a series of articles questioning the government’s role in spreading hate-filled propaganda aimed at silencing dissent.

But in March, Duterte began attacking ABS-CBN and the Inquirer, the two largest news outlets in the country. In April, he vowed to block the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise. Three months later, the Inquirer was sold to a Filipino billionaire Duterte describes as a “fast friend.”

After Duterte attacked Rappler in his July State of the Nation address, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa spoke at an Australian journalism conference in August, telling the audience, “The greatest challenge to journalism is what happens when you’re the one attacked and truth is contested.”

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CJR spoke with Ressa following her talk, but was unable to get in touch with her after this latest news. “We can see the writing on the wall,” she said at the time. “I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve already begun to feel it at Rappler.”


SEC decision was “fast-tracked,” according to Rappler CEO

Monday’s SEC ruling accuses Rappler of using a “deceptive scheme” to violate the country’s laws against foreign ownership of mass media entities after it accepted $1 million in funding from Omidyar Network—a charitable foundation and impact investment firm established in 2004 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. (The Omidyar Network has also sponsored CJR.)

Rappler disputes the finding, stating that in 2015 the SEC accepted documents outlining Omidyar Network’s investment in Rappler via Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs), which allow foreign entities to hold equity in media organizations without owning shares or controlling the day-to-day operations of the company.

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A presidential spokesperson said the government had nothing to do with the SEC decision, but Ressa said that statement is untrue. Commenting via Twitter, she said the “decision didn’t follow due process,” and was “fast-tracked” and “political in nature.”

Rappler is appealing the decision—due to take effect 15 days after the ruling was handed down—and will continue to operate while it does so. In an interview with CNN Philippines, Ressa said she is willing to take this battle all the way:

Let me just point out that we are not against the government. The role of journalists in a democracy is to help government come up with the right decisions. Although it is publicly questioned and could be seen as criticism by thin-skinned people, in the end that’s our role….I think that this a war of attrition and what’s publicly stated is not what is privately going on behind the scenes. But that’s what we journalists do—we will shine the light.

Activists have condemned the decision. “The moves by the Philippines authorities to shut down Rappler is an alarming attempt to silence independent journalism,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “The government must immediately reverse this decision and end all efforts to stifle free press in the country.”


The news vs. the government propaganda machine

Rappler was founded in 2012 and grew quickly—up to 300 percent year on year. Relying heavily on social media for its traffic, its growth was helped by the fact that Filipinos spend more time on social media than in any other country, according to the Digital in 2017 Global Overview report.

“It’s the same as Trump,” said Ressa. “If you’re not with them, you’re against them.”

While the social-news model worked for Rappler, Ressa told CJR in August, “it also worked for President Duterte, who was the first political candidate to really harness social media in the Philippines to win.”

In its October 2016 propaganda series, Rappler exposed a network of pro-government bots and sock-puppet accounts that posted fake news designed to sway public opinion in favor of Duterte’s drug war. For example, a photograph supposedly depicting a 9-year-old Filipino rape and murder victim, which was spread by Duterte’s campaign spokesman, was actually taken in Brazil.

After publishing the propaganda series, Ressa herself became a target of the propaganda machine she had exposed, receiving an average of 90 hate messages an hour—a pace that continued for a month.

Mob mentality and aggression toward the media has been de rigueur in the Philippines since Duterte swept to power on a populist tide in May 2016. The spread of disinformation on social networks is thought to have played a role in Duterte’s success.

“It’s the same as Trump,” said Ressa. “If you’re not with them, you’re against them.”


Jail for Duterte’s detractors

Ressa has seen what happens to Duterte’s detractors. Rappler documented Duterte’s campaign against Senator Leila de Lima, a former chairperson of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and former Secretary of the Department of Justice.

De Lima was a vocal critic of Duterte and urged Congress to investigate the extrajudicial killings. She was targeted with trolling attacks on social media and accused of having an affair with her driver, who was alleged to have collected drug money for her.

In February 2017, de Lima was arrested on drug charges and has spent the past year in prison. Amnesty International has condemned the arrest as politically motivated and called for all charges to be dropped.

“This is all meant to create a chilling effect—and it’s succeeded,” said Ressa. “It is meant to create acceptance for the war on drugs and the thousands of people who have been killed. It is meant to silence anyone who questions it.”

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Shelley Hepworth , formerly a CJR Delacorte Fellow, is Technology Editor at The Conversation in Australia. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.