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Philippine church leaders warn against media repression

Catholic clergy join growing protest over move to shut down the Rappler online news site

Mark Saludes and Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Mark Saludes and Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Published: January 18, 2018 05:13 AM GMT

Updated: January 18, 2018 05:17 AM GMT

Philippine church leaders warn against media repression

A student holds up a sign calling for an end to what activists described as media repression in the Philippines following the decision by the country's Securities and Exchange Commission to revoke the license of online media outfit Rappler. (Photo by Mark Saludes)


Several church leaders in the Philippines have joined a growing protest against what they called a state attempt to suppress the media following the license revocation of an online news website critical of the government.

Father Edwin Gariguez of the social action secretariat of the Catholic bishops' conference said the government "found a convenient way to harass and silence its perceived critics" with the withdrawal of the license for the Rappler news site.

Rappler is known for its critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte's policies, especially his anti-illegal drugs campaign that has reportedly resulted in the death of at least 13,000 suspected drug users and peddlers.

"This is clearly suppression of the press and freedom of expression," Father Gariguez said.

On Jan. 16 Duterte accused the site of spreading fake news.

"You can stop your suspicious mind from roaming somewhere else. But since you are a fake news outlet then I am not surprised that your articles are also fake," Duterte told a Rappler reporter at a press conference in Pasay City. "You went overboard, you are not only throwing toilet paper, you are throwing shit at us," he said.

The Philippines' Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler's license this week after accusing the news site of violating the constitution with regard to foreign ownership of media outlet.  

Rappler denied the allegation, asserting that shares granted to investors "do not indicate ownership."

The site maintained that its shareholders have signed an agreement giving full editorial and management control to the Filipino journalists and editors running the company.

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said, "there is something fishy" about the regulatory body's decision. He did not elaborate.

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Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro said that instead of silencing Rappler, it should be supported because it is "well known for good investigative reporting."

Father Raymond Montero Ambray of Tandag Diocese in the southern Philippines said the move to revoke Rappler's license is "undeniably a form of harassment."

"If the Duterte administration succeeds in this, then it has the complete recipe for authoritarianism," said the priest, adding that the government "might be cooking something sinister."

Father Dan Vicente Cancino, executive secretary of the bishops' Episcopal Commission on Health Care, said Rappler should "continue to be the voice of the voiceless."

Media and activist groups announced they will hold protests later this week in response to what they described as a government crackdown on the media.

The media and artists alliance Let's Organize for Democracy and Integrity said it is holding a "Black Friday" rally on Jan. 19.

The group said the revocation of Rappler's license, the delay in the renewal of a license to operate 54 church-run radio stations, and Duterte's threat to file plunder charges against the owners of a national daily are "part of the regime's preparation for the installation of full-blown tyranny."

While the president insisted that he had no hand in the decision on the Rappler case, the complaint was lodged by the solicitor-general, who also called on the Justice Department to investigate the news outlet.

Martin Andanar, head of Duterte's communications office, said Rappler could continue with its editorial operations because the SEC decision only affects the news outfit's business activities.

In a statement, the National Press Club of the Philippines said, "the exercise of press freedom in particular, and the freedom of expression in general, have not been affected nor threatened" with the SEC decision on Rappler.

"In the broader Philippine media industry, Rappler is just one among the thousands of media entities whose operations have remained free," said Paul Gutierrez, president of the club.

"To say that the fate of one media entity found to have run afoul of the law translates to media repression in the country is stretching the argument a bit too much," said Gutierrez.

He said the country has 436 television stations, 411 AM radio stations, over 1,000 FM radio stations, and more than 400 newspapers "operating freely in the country."

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