By: Our Correspondent

The indictment of the crusading news website Rappler and its editor and founder, Maria Ressa, has raised criticism from human rights and news organizations across the globe and generated deep concerns anew about the commitment to democracy of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Rappler, which claims 10 million unique visitors per month, and Ressa, a former longtime reporter for CNN in bureaus across Asia, were charged on Nov. 9 on allegations of tax evasion by the Bureau of Internal Revenue over the sale of common shares and Philippine Depositary 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.

Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams called the indictment a desperate attempt “to shut down one of the critical voices in Philippine journalism. Rappler has been in the cross-hairs of the administration from day one because of its unrelenting and exceptional coverage of corruption and malfeasance in government, particularly to the ‘drug war.’

Rappler, Adams said, has been subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation by the administration including threats on social media and blocking the news website’s reporter from covering the presidential palace.
“This case against Rappler is a clear assault on press freedom in the Philippines and part of the Duterte government’s attempt to evade scrutiny and accountability.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has repeatedly condemned the administration’s attacks on Rappler, which included government’s decision to ban the website from covering official presidential events, and has called for an immediate end to all government harassment. 

“President Rodrigo Duterte must cease and desist his government’s escalating campaign of harassment of Rappler,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Senior Southeast Asia representative, earlier this year. “Banning reporters from covering any national leader is an affront to press freedom. Rappler’s access to the presidential palace should be immediately and unconditionally restored.”

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has issued similar warnings, to little avail. 

Earlier this year the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler’s registration for alleged violations of constitutional provisions that bar foreigners from owning or operating local media. Rappler has denied the charges and appealed the decision, which was not executory, reports said.

Virtually since he was elected in 2016, Duterte has been on a campaign to rid the political sphere of his critics, first ordering the arrest of his most distinguished opponent, former Attorney General Leila de Lima, on charges of complicity in drug deals that international critics allege are specious after, as a member of the Senate, she attempted an investigation into his infamous war on drugs.

Most recently, he has been attempting to revoke the amnesty against coup charges granted to Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who took over as Duterte’s chief detractor after the jailing of de Lima. Trillanes was arrested on Sept. 24 and bailed out. He has proved to be Duterte’s most vocal opponent, accusing the president and his son of corruption and of their own involvement in illegal drugs, which Duterte has denied. Duterte was thwarted, at least temporarily, when a Makati judge refused to reverse Trillanes’ amnesty. The government is continuing to appeal the judge’s ruling.

A onetime Philippine Navy officer, Trillanes, now 47, in 2003 led what was called the Oakwood Mutiny, comprising some 300 junior officers and enlisted men who attempted to stage a coup against what he said was rampant corruption in government of then-President Gloria Macapal Arroyo, then tried it again in 2007. Both coups failed, and Trillanes was sentenced to prison, where in a fit of audacity, he campaigned for the Philippine Senate in 2007 from his jail cell and won.

As the crackdown on rights continues, Duterte has said nothing about the fact that three political figures under indictment in the infamous Pork Barrel scandal of 2015, in which millions of dollars were diverted from government programs to politicians’ pockets, have been allowed to file for next year’s midterm congressional elections.

Duterte also engineered the ouster of the highly respected former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, appointed by his predecessor, Beningno s. Aquino III on suspect charges of misuse of public funds, and replace her with Teresita Leondardo-de Castro, a Duterte ally. Sereno had opposed Duterte’s attempts to go after judges he accused of being sympathetic to drug interests, saying the court could police itself.  He has used various laws to go after the most responsible critics in the press. He has sought to drive out his own vice president, another critic.

Duterte has betrayed unsettling tendencies toward autocracy ever since he became president. Nonetheless, his administration has retained a “very good” net satisfaction rating from the public as late as the third quarter of 2018, at plus 50 according to the Social Weather Stations (SWS) although that was a drop from plus 58 in the previous quarter.

The Consumer Price Index is continuing to edge up, with headline inflation hitting 6.7 percent in October at the same time the peso has fallen against the US dollar to 53.106, largely in line with many other emergency market currencies, which have taken a beating as the US Federal Reserve has continued to raise US dollar interest rates, drawing currency flows into US treasuries. Unemployment is stubbornly, with adult joblessness at 22 percent, or 9.8 million jobless adults, according to a September survey by Social Weather Stations, a 2.3 percent increase from 19,7 percent in the second quarter. 

Nonetheless, voter approval remains high, driven partly by public approval of Duterte’s murderous drug war and by a perception that the government is making progress against corruption.