Rappler: A Test Case for Press Freedom
THE ONLINE social news site Rappler has been under attack and could be the first casualty of President Duterte’s war against the press and press freedom.
Rappler was one of several media organizations that began tracking the killings that have characterized the administration’s drug war. Media’s count eventually ceased after the Philippine National Police accused the media of exaggerating the numbers. Rappler also reported critically of other policies and programs of the Duterte administration.
President Rodrigo Duterte himself tagged Rappler as “biased” in his speeches. He also ordered Pia Ranada, Rappler’s Malacañang (the Philippine president’s office and residence) reporter, barred from covering him on several occasions.
His animosity towards Rappler caused his supporters to swarm the news site and its reporters with threats and incitements to violence. Maria Ressa, Rappler CEO and editor, claimed that her Facebook page has been receiving 2,000 “ugly” comments every day. Threats on social media also targeted Pia Ranada and other reporters. Trolls and internet hecklers are still attacking Rappler. Perhaps, it is because the president also bullies the news organization every time he has the chance.
In late 2017, the president started to question Rappler’s ownership. He claimed that Rappler is foreign-owned.
REVOCATION OF INCORPORATION PAPERS
A few months after the president’s threat, on January 11, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked the incorporation papers of Rappler, alleging that social news site violated the Constitution and the Anti-Dummy Law.
The SEC order said that Rappler violated the Constitutional provision limiting ownership and control of mass media to Filipinos.
Article XVI, Section 11 of the Constitution states that “The ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, cooperatives or associations, wholly-owned and managed by such citizens.”
According to the SEC resolution, part of Rappler’s funds come from Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder and entrepreneur, Pierre Omidyar, as reflected in the Philippine Depository Receipt (PDR) submitted by Rappler to the SEC in 2015.
PDR is financial document that gives its holder the right to own stocks in and receive interest and dividends from a Filipino company. The instrument is used by Filipino firms and corporations to raise capital. Big media corporations like the ABS-CBN and GMA have been using the PDR to gain foreign investment, as allowed by the Security Exchange Commission. PDR holders invest in a company to earn profits, not to gain control over the company or interfere in its decisions. An investor has the right to on some stocks but the title over the stocks remains with the company.
Rappler issued a statement following the order that Omidyar has “no voting powers” in the organization, and clarified that while the PDR agreement with Omidyar Network states that “Rappler should engage in a prior discussion with the investor should it amend its constitution and by-laws,” Omidyar Network “has never exercised – and has waived – this controversial clause.” Several news organizations and groups rallied behind the social news site who saw the case as an attempt to suppress press freedom in the country.
On January 29, 2018, Rappler filed a 68-page petition for review before the Court of Appeals (CA). The petition argued that the agreement between Omidyar and Rappler does not constitute foreign control. Rappler also claimed it was denied due process as mandated by SEC rules on the procedures for administrative action.
Duterte on February 20 barred Rappler and its Malacañang reporter from covering him.
On July 26, the CA denied Rappler’s petition but told the SEC to give Rappler a “reasonable” period to comply with legal requirements.
It also said that while part of Rappler’s operating funds are from a foreign source, which is “tantamount to some amount” of foreign control over the news organization, the funder “never exercised” the right to vote.
TAX EVASION CASE
A new case was filed against Rappler on March 8 as the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) filed a tax evasion complaint against Rappler Holdings Corporation (RHC) before the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The complaint alleged that RHC, with its president, Maria Ressa, and treasurer, James Bitanga, wilfully attempted to evade tax payments, and failed to provide accurate information in its income tax and value-added tax (VAT) returns for 2015. The alleged violation was in connection with the sale of its Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs) to two foreign entities in 2015. According to the BIR, RHC earned roughly PHP162.5-million from the transaction but failed to declare it in its tax return.
After nine months, the DOJ found probable cause to charge RHC with tax evasion on November 9. Ressa, and Noel Baldiang, Rappler’s independent accountant, were also indicted. On November 26 and 28, RHC and Ressa were charged with tax evasion before the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA).
A separate tax case was also filed before the Pasig Regional Trial Court (RTC). Judge Danilo Buemio of the Pasig City RTC issued a warrant of arrest against Ressa on November 28 for alleged violation of Section 255 of the National Internal Revenue Code of 1997. The court said it found probable cause to prosecute Rappler for its failure to declare correct information on its Value Added Tax return for the second quarter of 2015.
Ressa posted bail on December 3 at Branch 265 of the Pasig City RTC to evade arrest.
CYBER LIBEL CASE
Businessman Wilfredo Keng filed a cyber-libel complaint against Rappler on October 11,
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) subpoenaed Ressa and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. on January 18,
The story by Santos, “CJ using SUVs of ‘controversial’ Businessmen” reported that Keng had allowed then former Chief Justice Renato Corona to use his sports utility vehicle. The report also claimed that Keng was involved in human trafficking and other illegal activities. Corona was facing an impeachment trial at the time the report was published.
On February 1, 2018, Rappler submitted its counter-affidavit to the NBI, which junked Keng’s complaint on February 22 because it has lapsed the prescriptive period for libel.
A week after it dismissed the case, however, the NBI flipped and recommended the prosecution of Rappler for cyber libel. The NBI said that the previous ruling on the case was “prematurely disclosed.” Keng submitted supplemental evidence to the NBI that states that the prescriptive period of crimes under the Cyber Crime Act of 2012 is 15 years. Keng also claimed that the article was “reposted” in 2014. The NBI endorsed the case to the DOJ for prosecution.
NBI Cybercrime Division Chief Manuel Antonio Eduarte, who at first declared the case closed, refused to entertain questions from Rappler on why the complaint had been revived.
The DOJ recommended on February 4, 2019, the filing in court of cyber libel charges against Rappler Incorporated, Ressa and Santos.
Case after case. Attack after attack. The Duterte administration has consistently denied that these charges against the online news site
Different institutions — from cause-oriented groups and press freedom advocates to local and international media — expressed concern over the continuous actions taken against Rappler.
Many believe that such serial assault on one organization intimidate will eventually affect the press community and the institution as a whole, diminishing the autonomy of the press and instilling fear in other members of the media, chilling the will of journalists to probe and inquire and to criticize those in power.
Such a crackdown on the press attacks the spirit of democracy and corrodes the system of government that relies on check and balance.
The rights group Movement Against Tyranny (MAT) believe that the “grave attacks” against press freedom and freedom of expression are rudiments of dictatorship.
New York Times published an editorial denouncing Duterte’s “viciousness” and his disdain for democratic protection after the SEC revoked Rappler’s incorporation papers. The same editorial said that
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) on June 6,
The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) said in one of their statements, “when the highest official in the land chooses to wage a personal vendetta against an individual, whether a journalist or a media outfit, it sends a clear and chilling signal that everyone else better report only what he wants you to or else.”