Lame Duck Duterte Still Seeking to Shut Down Rappler
SEC affirms decision to close news site over allegations of foreign ownership
Outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appears to have made one last swing at the popular news portal Rappler with two days left in office, with the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issuing an order affirming its decision to revoke Rappler’s certificates of incorporation over questions of foreign ownership.
Rappler publisher Maria Ressa, who was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in 2021 for her courage in standing up to political oppression, said the website would continue to publish while it exercises its options to appeal, which are expected to be relatively lengthy. “We have existing legal remedies all the way up to the highest court of the land,” said Francis Lim, Rappler’s lawyer, in a Zoom press conference. “It is business as usual for us since, in our view, this is not immediately executory without court approval.”
“We will follow the legal process, we will continue to stand up for our rights,” Ressa told the press conference.
There are at least eight legal actions pending against Rappler and Ressa, who has been arrested repeatedly and was almost blocked by the government from attending the Nobel ceremony in Oslo last year. She has been forced to post bail at least seven times on a long string of charges widely perceived as harassment for Rappler’s refusal to buckle under and stop criticizing Duterte’s ill-starred drug campaign. One of the charges relates to cyber libel stemming from a story written years before the cyber libel law was passed.
Although the decision was publicly announced by the SEC, it is almost certain that it came from Duterte, who has warred with Ressa and the website throughout his presidency for its opposition to the drug campaign, which has taken the lives of thousands of mostly poor drug users through extrajudicial killings by police and death squads.
Duterte, who faces the possibility of arrest by the international criminal court for his drug war, hasn’t slackened his campaign against the press and activists, including arresting 83 individuals supporting agrarian reform and shutting down two other news sites besides Rappler on charges they were connected to radical organizations. The national police have continued to “red tag” individuals, allegedly tying them to communists, including Representative Carlos Zarate, who released a statement condemning the alleged red-tagging. Too often, red-tagging has culminated in assassinations.
With Duterte going out the door on July 1 and handing the presidency over to Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the big question is if Marcos, whose father was routed from the country in 1987 in the midst of a failed dictatorship, will continue the vendetta. The signs are not encouraging. He has refused to answer questions during press conferences from Rappler and other news organizations deemed to be neutral or hostile to his campaign.
Following Bongbong’s refusal to cooperate with reporters, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said in a statement that it "stands with Rappler’s Lian Buan and Rambo Talabong and the journalists covering the UniTeam campaign despite the challenging situation that coverage has presented."
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, in a prepared statement, also called on Marcos to restore press freedom by reversing the SEC’s revocation of Rappler’s incorporation certificates, as did Human Rights Watch.
“Rappler is facing government retaliation for its fearless reporting about rights abuses in the ‘drug war’, Duterte and Marcos’ use of disinformation on social media, and a wide variety of rights-abusing actions over the past six years,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch. “This is an effort to shut up Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, and shut down Rappler, by hook or by crook. So, it’s entirely predictable that the SEC would bend over backwards to interpret rules in a way that would enable them to take Rappler down while spuriously claiming that this is a normal regulatory action. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that’s not the case.”
The SEC’s action stems from a 2018 finding that Rappler’s issuance of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) to foreign investor Pierre Omidyar, one of the billionaire founders of eBay, constituted foreign control, which is prohibited under the constitution.
The court of appeal later said that when Omidyar donated the PDRs to Rappler’s Filipino managers, “the negative foreign control found objectionable by the SEC appears to have been permanently removed” and remanded the case back to reevaluate, citing the Corporation Code’s clause allowing companies a grace period to cure their alleged defects.
The case has bounced back and forth between the SEC and the courts for the past four years. Rappler filed a motion for reconsideration before the SEC. This latest order is an action to that motion, according to a statement by Rappler.
Rappler told its staff in an internal memo sent late night Tuesday: “Clarity, agility, sobriety. Review our drills and the tasks assigned to you. Meantime, it is business as usual for us. We will adapt, adjust, survive and thrive.”