Philippines’ Duterte Seeks to Smash Crusading News Site

If ever there were indications that Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte is following in the footsteps of the ousted strongman Ferdinand Marcos, it is the way he is bending the country’s laws to hound critics, most lately Maria Ressa, arguably the country’s most celebrated journalist and his most trenchant critic.

Ressa, one of Asia’s most prominent journalists, who was named a Time Magazine Person of the Year in December, is the editor in chief of Rappler, an online news site that claims more than 10 million readers a month. She was arrested after office hours and jailed overnight because she couldn’t find a court to make bail on Feb. 13 on orders of Presiding Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court on what critics say were specious charges of cyber libel over a story written on May 29, 2012. Reynaldo Santos Jr., the researcher who wrote the story, was also charged.

The action against Rappler and Ressa has raised alarms across a wide spectrum of rights and press organizations.

“The Philippine government's legal harassment of Rappler and Ressa has now reached a critical and alarming juncture," said Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists' senior Southeast Asia representative. "We call on Filipino authorities to immediately release Ressa, drop this spurious cyber libel charge, and cease and desist this campaign of intimidation aimed at silencing Rappler."

But it isn’t just Rappler, by a long shot. Duterte, like Marcos before him, has set out to silence as many critics as possible by using dubious law to do it. His first target, shortly after he was elected in 2015, was the highly respected former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, whom he arrested and jailed on suspicious drug charges and who remains in custody without ever having been tried.

He has sought to revoke the amnesty granted to Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, his most implacable legislative critic, by his predecessor, Benigno S. Aquino III for Trillanes’ part in attempted coups during Aquino’s mother’s administration. He used dubious procedures to engineer the removal of his most respected jurist critic, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Groups allied with Duterte have filed multiple lawsuits against former president Aquino and former budget secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad, a longtime leader of the Liberal Party.

“Unlike previous administrations, Duterte and his supporters routinely use lawsuits, incarceration and social media trolling to intimidate opponents and critics, calling out opponents, denouncing them in the strongest possible terms,” according to a scathing critique of his administration by the Carnegie Endowment, which said that “his statements and actions send the message that no one is safe from his attacks and that opposing him is a high-risk venture” and “weaponizing the legal system” to attack political opponents.

In the current controversy, according to a timeline established by the Southeast Asia Press Alliance, Santos wrote that then-chief Justice Renato Corona was said to be borrowing vehicles from others including an allegedly unsavory businessman named Wilfredo D. Keng while Corona was being successfully impeached during the administration of former President Aquino. The vehicle was a black Suburban with the license plate ZWK 111 registered to Keng. Corona's assigned vehicle, according to the story, was a beige 1996 Toyota Camry.

That was months before the Philippine Legislature enacted a law establishing cyber libel as a punishable offense.

Keng apparently wasn’t offended enough by the story to file a complaint until Oct. 11, 2017 – well after Rappler had become a persistent recorder of negative stories about Duterte’s administration – when he filed an online libel complaint with the National Bureau of Investigation, the country’s premier criminal investigation agency.

The NBI summoned Ressa and Santos, who had long since left Rappler for another job, on Jan. 18, 2018, a few days after the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission had decided to revoke Rappler’s incorporation papers on equally specious charges that the news organization was built on foreign money from democracy philanthropist George Soros and others.

Four days after Santos and Ressa were ordered to report to the NBI, the agency dismissed the complaint for “lack of basis” and said that the country’s one-year limit on filing libel charges had expired.

However, the NBI reversed itself on March 2, 2018, saying the “prescriptive period for crimes falling under…the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 is 15 years." The case named not only Ressa and Santos but seven other Rappler editors and officers. The cyber libel charges were recommended on Jan. 10, 2019, but nobody told Rappler until Feb. 4.

Now Ressa has been freed, and is now speaking out. “How interesting that [Keng] only chose to sue Rappler under this administration,” she wrote in a Facebook post. "And how his press release kicked in to all news organizations when I seemed to have been unlawfully arrested. Folks in government, actions speak louder than words. This ludicrous case of cyber libel as well as forcing me to post bail SIX times in less than 2 months is exactly why the law has been weaponized in the Philippines.”

This is the second prong of an attack on Rappler and Ressa, a former longtime reporter for CNN in news bureaus across Asia. They were charged on Nov. 9 on allegations of tax evasion by the Bureau of Internal Revenue over the sale of common shares and Philippine Depository Receipts.

Rappler denied the allegations in a prepared statement, calling them a “clear form of continuing intimidation and harassment and an attempt to silence reporting that does not please the administration.” The case, according to Rappler’s lawyer, wrongly attempted to classify the news site as a dealer in securities and that it profited from their sale.

In January, the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler’s business registration for allegedly violating rules on foreign ownership of media entities. The news site has set up a crowdfunding mechanism to attempt to raise funds to pay legal expenses, which Ressa said are nearly crippling the publication.

Given the clearly contradictory nature of the events surrounding the case, it would be easy to believe the government’s charges will be easily refuted. But in the Philippines today, Duterte’s sway over what have always been courts that practice selective justice at best, the charges are deeply disturbing. Duterte is clearly determined to put Rappler out of business, as he is determined to throttle all opposition.

A megalomaniac at 73, he seems to believe he has a pipeline to truth, and anyone who opposes his murderous drug war, which has taken the lives of thousands of mostly poor and powerless people, is fair game. A vigorous campaign to keep Rappler in business on the part of international rights and press organizations may not be enough.