In his second State of the Nation address on July 24, 2017, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte departed from his prepared text to denounce a phenomenally successful – and critical – news website called Rappler, accusing it of being owned by American interests.
Denunciations by Duterte are ominous because they have a way of ending in action. Leila de Lima, the highly respected former head of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and Secretary of the Department of Justice has been in prison since February of 2017 allegedly for “aiding” drug dealers in the Philippines. De Lima had been bitterly critical of Duterte’s war on drugs, which is believed to have claimed the lives of 14,000 people, virtually all of them poor and powerless. She has been designated a prisoner of conscience by numerous international human rights organizations.
Sure enough, the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission has ruled that Rappler must surrender its license because of the allegations of foreign ownership, which the publication is appealing. Duterte coyly has said he had nothing to do with the ruling.
The fact is that Duterte, since his elevation to the Philippine presidency in June of 2016, is demonstrating that his grip on democratic principles is slippery indeed. He is determined to get as many of his critics out of his way as possible. And disturbingly, he looks more and more determined, at the age of 73, to remain in power much as Ferdinand Marcos did when Marcos turned the Philippines from one of the most prosperous countries in Asia to one of the poorest during his 21 years in power from 1965 to 1986.
In addition to seeking to neuter the country’s independent press including the well-respected Philippine Daily Inquirer by forcing the paper’s sale to a crony and seeking to block the renewal of the license of the entertainment and news conglomerate ABS-CBN, he has asked the Philippine House of Representatives to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. He also has said he is determined to impeach Conchita Carpio Morales, the Ombudsman, who like Sereno is a critic of his policies.
Although he denies it, he is believed behind a move to amend the constitution of the Philippines to extend his term in office by shifting to a federal form of government. He has delayed and possibly canceled for good the scheduled elections for candidates in barangays, the country’s smallest administrative division and is the native term for a village. He has declared martial law on the island of Mindanao over the Jihadist invasion of the city of Marawi and said he would arrest anybody who criticized him. He has said he would ignore the country’s Supreme Court if it ruled against martial law and has threatened to extend it to other parts of the country.
And in the meantime, the bloody campaign of extrajudicial killings of drug addicts and dealers continues.
Maria Ressa, the editor in chief of Rappler, remains defiant. After the SEC ruling, Rappler issued a statement on Jan. 15 saying that “The SEC’s kill order revoking Rappler’s license to operate is the first of its kind in history – both for the Commission and for Philippine media.”
The SEC based its decision on the fact that Pierre Omidyar, one of the founders of the hugely successful online auction side eBay has contributed funds to Rappler although Rappler and others argue that the contribution, through a financial instrument called a PDR, doesn’t give the contributor voting rights or a say in management and that several large companies, including media companies, have PDRs.
“What this means for you, and for us, is that the Commission is ordering us to close shop, to cease telling you stories, to stop speaking truth to power, and to let go of everything that we have built – and created – with you since 2012. All because they focused on one clause in one of our contracts which we submitted to – and was accepted by – the SEC in 2015,” Rappler said in its open letter.
Rappler has received widespread support including from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which issued a statement Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler saying that “The order to close Rappler amounts to a direct assault on freedom of the press in the Philippines," said Steven Butler, CPJ Asia program coordinator. "We urge Philippine authorities to back off from this effort to close an independent news outlet, and to respect the guarantee of press freedom enshrined in the Philippines constitution's Bill of Rights."
Human Rights Watch Deputy Director Prelim Kine said the SEC’s attack on Rappler is “nothing less than a politicized attack on a critical media voice in the Philippines using the pretext of alleged foreign ownership,” he said. “To a certain extent, this is a weaponization of state regulatory processes to undermine and to stifle media freedom.”
The New York Times, in a Jan. 17 editorial, said that “Even among that cast of illiberal leaders who rouse mobs with their ruthless policies and disdain for democratic protections, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines stands out for his viciousness. He has effectively declared open season on those he and his minions accuse of being drug users and dealers…Exposing such brazen abuse of power is a hallowed mission of a free press, so it should come as no surprise that authoritarians like Mr. Duterte usually go after independent media.” it added.
“We’ve been through a lot together, through good and bad – sharing stories, building communities, inspiring hope, uncovering wrongdoing, battling trolls, exposing the fake,” Rappler said. “We will continue bringing you the news, holding the powerful to account for their actions and decisions, calling attention to government lapses that further disempower the disadvantaged. We will hold the line.”