By: Purple Romero

It has become a habit for Maria Ressa, the embattled CEO of the Philippines news site Rappler.com, to face prosecutors from the Department of Justice. On May 7, Ressa again appeared before them in a tax evasion case that appears to be little more than political harassment by President Rodrigo Duterte.

Rappler, the country’s leading social news site, has reported critically on Duterte’s war on drugs and alleged use of fake news to silence the opposition. It has been accused by the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) of failing to pay US$2.576 million in taxes. Ressa has decried the charges as “harassment.”

Duterte isn’t just after Rappler, and he isn’t just after the press. He is using government institutions including a tame Congress to go after anyone who opposes him, particularly over his war on drugs, which critics say has now taken more than 20,000 lives. He has declared war on Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, seeking to have her impeached. Former Justice Minister and Senator Leila de Lima remains in “preventive detention” at Camp Crame, the military headquarters. He has threatened to create a commission to probe supposed corruption in the Office of the Ombudsman, which is probing supposed ill-gotten wealth by Duterte and his family.

A critical press has taken the brunt of his antagonism in a country that often ranks among the world’s most dangerous for reporters according to the press watchdogs Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks it the world’s fifth most dangerous country, with at least 177 media workers killed since 1986. In 2009, the deadliest single attack ever perpetrated on journalists took the lives of 32 media workers and 25 others in what has been called the Maguindanao Massacre. To date, although there have been arrests, there have been no convictions in the case.

Duterte has forced the sale of the respected broadsheet the Philippine Daily Inquirer to a crony and has issued threats against the respected news organization ABS-CBN. Rappler itself has denied there was any tax evasion.

“There was no intent to avoid tax. Everything was disclosed,” Rappler lawyer Francs Lim said as Rappler submitted its counter-affidavit on May 7.

The tax evasion case stems from a ruling by the Securities and Exchange Commission in January that Rappler should be shut down for issuing Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) to foreign entities, supposedly violating a law against the foreign ownership of media. The BIR said Rappler consequently must be taxed for the PDRs.

The tax evasion case is the latest in a string of lawsuits filed against Rappler. Prior to this, the National Bureau of Investigation revived an already dismissed cyber-libel case against Ressa and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. for a story published six years ago.

The latest episode in the probe of Rappler – a move which local and international media have denounced as part of the government’s concerted efforts to kill critical journalism – came days after Edmund Sestoso, radio broadcaster, was shot by motorcycle-riding gunmen on April 30.  He died on May 1, the ninth journalist to do so under Duterte’s two-year reign.

“The attack, carried out in public by men on a motorcycle in the southern city of Dumaguete, demonstrates yet again the persistence of a culture of impunity in the Philippines that has forced journalists — especially in the provinces — to work and live in a climate of fear,” the Human Rights Watch said.

Duterte has offered a PHP200,000 (US$3,856) -reward to anyone who can provide information about the killers of Sestoso, the former president of the National Union Journalists of the Philippines chapter in the province of Dumaguete. 

But while the reward may help bring those responsible to justice, the sincerity of the administration in protecting journalists has been long into question, as Duterte continues to attack the media. 

Calling them “spies” and saying they should be killed if they are “corrupt,” Duterte’s tirades against journalists mirror a disturbing trend of deaths and harassment.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), the NUJP and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), in its report “Speak Truth to Power, Keep Power in Check,” said that the press has seen the most number of attacks and threats under the Duterte administration – 85 all in all – the most among all presidents since the time of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Task force – dual role?

But the relationship between Duterte and the media has not always been fraught with hostility.

In his early days as president, the strongman has blown hot and cold on the media. There was a time when the president even implored his followers to let the media be, as they were just “doing their job.”

The PCIJ, NUJP and the CMFR also noted that Duterte even signed Administrative Order No. 1, which created The Presidential Task Force On Violations Of The Right To Life, Liberty And Security Of The Members Of The Media (PTFoMS), on Oct. 11, 2016.

The task force, headed by the Department of Justice(DOJ), was mandated to record cases of harassment and violence against journalists.

Ironically, some of the very same government agencies under the task force are the same bodies which initiated proceedings against news organizations such as Rappler. The Office of the Solicitor General asked SEC to look into Rappler’s PDR deal, while the DOJ and the NBI dug up possible violations that Rappler may have committed.

While these bodies have used their resources to go after the media, the PTFoMS lacked funds and manpower, however.  As pointed out by PCIJ, NUJP and CMFR in their analysis “The media and the Duterte presidency,” this prevents the body from creating “genuine impact.”

 Media ban

The House of Representatives, which is dominated by Duterte’s allies, has also taken steps to control Philippine media.

Its latest attempt to do so was the proposed ban against journalists who “besmirch” the reputation of lawmakers. The provision is part of the draft rules and regulations for press covering Congress.

Prior to that, House Deputy Speaker Fredenil Castro has recommended that the current Constitutional provision protecting the right to freedom of expression be amended to qualify that no law should be passed only against the “responsible exercise” of freedom of expression.

Both actions have been condemned as part of the state’s maneuvers to suppress the media.

But while these legislative measures have been blocked, the executive branch has used its powers to curtail press freedom by restricting media access – Malacanang has barred Rappler from covering events involving Duterte, while accredited foreign correspondents were initially stopped from covering the Philippines at an ASEAN forum in Singapore.

“The increasingly hostile environment for the Philippine press has not gone unnoticed. In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders reduced the Philippines’ press freedom global ranking from 127 to 133 out of 180 countries,” Human Rights Watch said.

Defending press freedom in the Philippines requires stronger mettle now. Doreen Weisenhaus, an instructor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center said journalists “need to continue to fight their battles in the courts for which there is international support. Several years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Committee concluded that the Philippine criminal libel laws violated international standards for freedom of expression.”

To say that it will be a tough fight is an understatement, but the Philippine press will soldier on.

“Rodrigo R. Duterte has brandished the power of fear. His threats and attacks bear the full weight of his office, the highest in the land. No need to test constitutional limits. All he seems to want to do is to make enough journalists understand that they should be very afraid,” the PCIJ, CMFR and NUJP said on May 3, the World Press Freedom Day.

“But, like fear, courage could be contagious. And unlike fear that disempowers, courage built on the power of truth and the unity of all in media is a force that empowers,” the press organizations said. “To stand firm and to stand united for press freedom and democracy, to speak truth to power and to keep power in check — this much the press owes the people. And whoever is president, the paramount duty of a free press in a democracy is to defend and uphold the people’s right to know, with unqualified courage and unity.”