Students at the University of the Philippines in Manila hold a protest rally on Jan. 16 to call for a stop to what they described as media repression by the government following a decision by the Securities and Exchange Commission to revoke the license of online news site Rappler. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
The Philippines' securities regulatory body has revoked the license of an online news agency highly critical of President Rodrigo Duterte's government, especially the deadly war on drugs.
Media and human rights groups denounced the Jan. 15 decision against news site Rappler calling it a blow to press freedom.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines expressed its "outrage" and called on Filipino journalists "to unite and resist every and all attempts to silence us."
The group said the move against Rappler was one of many threats Duterte has made against media organizations critical of his policies.
According to the country's Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Rappler violated the constitution in regard to foreign ownership because it received funds from the Omidyar Network of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
The Philippine Constitution states that, "ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines."
Rappler said it would continue to operate while it takes the closure bid to the courts.
The online news site has been a target of Duterte's ire over its reporting especially on the government's war against illegal drugs, which has reportedly killed up to 13,000 people.
Rappler has rejected the ownership allegations, saying its foreign investors are not the owners.
"They invest, but don't own. Rappler remains 100 percent Filipino-owned," read the new site's statement.
Palace washes hands of decision
The presidential palace said the SEC decision was not an attack on press freedom.
"The constitution sets restrictions on the ownership and management of mass media entities to which all must abide," said presidential spokesman Harry Roque.
"We respect the SEC decision that Rappler contravenes the strict requirements of the law that the ownership and the management of mass media entities must be wholly-owned by Filipinos," said Roque.
"The issue at hand is the compliance of 100 percent Filipino ownership and management of mass media. It is not about infringement on the freedom of the press," added Roque.
Media groups slammed the decision.
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines expressed "deep concern" over the move, describing it as "tantamount to killing the online news site" and an "assault against democracy."
The Photojournalists' Center of the Philippines said it was "alarmed at the decision," and "strongly condemns any form of intimidation and harassment of media practitioners."
The Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong said it was "appalled" by the decision, which "marks a dark day for press freedom and democracy in the Philippines."
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand said it is "deeply concerned" by a decision that "will have profound and negative consequences for media freedom in the Philippines."
Chilling effect on media freedom
Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the move would result in self-censorship by the media fearful of government reprisals for critical reporting.
He said the move against Rappler "suggests a sinister use of state regulatory processes to stifle critical media voices."
Amnesty International called the SEC decision "an alarming attempt to silence independent journalism."
James Gomez, Amnesty International's Southeast Asia and the Pacific director said,
"The Philippine government should focus on ending and investigating violations, mostly against poor communities, in the 'war on drugs,' not trying to silence the messenger," he added.
Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of rights group Karapatan, said the revocation of Rappler's license "is clearly a move to constrict press freedom."
"It also attests to the reality that this regime is gradually moving towards a dictatorship," said Palabay.
Luis Teodoro, former dean of the University of the Philippines' College of Mass Communication, said Rappler can continue operations if it moves out of the Philippines.
"They are online, they can continue to operate wherever they are," he said.