MANILA, Philippines — An international media watchdog has asked the United Nations, its cultural and educational agency UNESCO, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to “take a stand” against the threatened shutdown of news site Rappler on “trumped-up legal grounds.”
Rappler is contesting the decision of the Securities and Exchange Commission to revoke its license for allegedly violating the constitutional prohibition against foreign ownership of media. But the Department of Justice has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to mount a separate probe for possible criminal charges based on the SEC ruling.
“The decision to close Rappler is fraught with danger, hence the urgency of referring it to these international bodies,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deputy director-general Antoine Bernard said. “We are very concerned about the safety of its journalists and the protection of their sources, especially as Rappler is well known for the quality of its investigative reporting.”
RSF said SEC has “produced no hard evidence to support its accusations” that Rappler and Rappler Holding Corp. “with no other purpose than to effect a deceptive scheme to circumvent the constitution.”
Rappler has also said the Philippine depository receipt it issued the Omidyar Network, set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, merely represented its investment but did not in any way grant ownership or control of the outfit.
Daniel Bastard, who heads RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, hinted that President Rodrigo Duterte, who has displayed open hostility toward Rappler several time, may have had a direct hand in the bid to shut down the news site.
“For more than a year, Duterte’s notorious troll army has been spreading the rumour that Rappler is 100 percent foreign-owned,” he said.
Duterte, he added, “is clearly trying to exploit nationalist sentiment in order to silence a media outlet that annoys his clique.”
RSF also pointed to presidential spokesman Harry Roque’s statement that Rappler journalists “can still become bloggers” in light of the SEC ruling as “a sign of the Duterte government’s contempt for journalistic freedom and independence.”
Before joining government, Roque built a name as an expert on human rights and international law who often took up cases involving attacks on journalists and press freedom.