DOJ dismisses Rappler’s ‘fishing expedition’ claims over probe

NBI also investigating site’s reported violation of cybercrime law

The Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) has maintained that the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI)’s probe into the alleged foreign ownership of news website Rappler is neither a “fishing expedition” nor an attack on press freedom.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said such an insinuation is “unfounded and most unfair” to the DOJ and its attached agency, the NBI.

Aguirre issued Department Order 017 on Wednesday, January 17, granting the NBI the authority to conduct an investigation and a case build-up against Rappler for “possible violation of the Constitution and laws.”

The DOJ’s order came days after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler’s license to operate on Monday, January 15 over the alleged violation of Constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership.

Under the Philippine Constitution, mass media companies are required to be fully owned by Filipinos.  The SEC claims that Rappler had violated those rules by taking funds from Omidyar Network, a self-described philanthropic investment firm created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, a non-Filipino.

Rappler argues that the investors provided funding through a Philippine Depository Receipt (PDR), which essentially allows companies to invest in media companies without becoming owners.  Many national companies are said to use PDRs.

In a statement, the social news network slammed the DOJ for ordering the investigation, calling it “a fishing expedition, and pure and simple harassment.”

“This is a fishing expedition, and pure and simple harassment. We thought this was supposed to be in relation to PDRs and the alleged violation of the Constitution,” Rappler said.

It added, “It’s all the more clear and blatant what government’s agenda is: they’re deadset to get Rappler and kill press freedom.”

Aguirre, in response, argued that the investigation order “was never intended to interfere nor violate press freedom.”

“We want to emphasize that your DoJ respects freedom of the press. However, to borrow the words of the National Press Club (NPC), responsible journalism means compliance with the law,” he added.

The justice secretary further noted that the DOJ’s mandate includes “investigating crimes, prosecuting offenders and overseeing the correctional system.”

Int’l media condemn SEC move

Following the SEC’s move, several top international media companies have reacted and expressed support for Rappler.

Earlier this week, the New York Times joined in solidarity and called the SEC ruling “only the tip” of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s attack on media critics.

In its op-ed published, the Times also highlighted the proliferation of fake news and said Duterte’s denial of being involved was predictable.

“His supporters have also made the Philippines a swamp of fake news, conspiracy theories and online harassment,” said the Times.

“Mr. Duterte has refused to condemn the flood and has denied any involvement in its creation,” it added.  “Predictably, he also denied that the revocation of Rappler’s was political, and he said he didn’t care whether or not Rappler continued to operate.”

The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, January 16 listed the SEC ruling as the latest attempt by the Duterte administration to “silence” media and those critical of the administration.

“Other media organizations use the same structure; only Rappler is being singled out for punishment,” said the WSJ article.

The Washington Post also took on the issue on Thursday, January 18 in an editorial titled, “Another dictator lashes out at press freedom.”

“What’s worrisome about Mr. Duterte’s attack is not only the use of government to close down a pathbreaking news source but also his deployment of the delegitimization that lies behind the moniker ‘fake news,’” the publication wrote. “This is a twisted way to undermine confidence and trust in the news itself, a tactic now being widely exploited by rulers who do not want to be bound by the norms of democracy and rule of law. “

“President Trump’s use of ‘fake news’ shows not that the United States is overflowing with untrustworthy news but that it is possible for a leader to use smokescreens and kick up dust to the point where it obscures truth. Are other authoritarians learning from Mr. Trump, or is he learning from them?” the editorial concluded. “It is hard to tell some days. In the Philippines, the attack on Rappler should be rescinded. A free press cannot be allowed to be smothered by the fog of an authoritarian leader shouting ‘fake news.’”

Meanwhile, Marcus Brauchli, co-founder of North Base Media which also has investments in Rappler through PDRs, responded to a letter written to him by Filipino journalist Rigoberto Tiglao who asked for Brauchli’s comment on the ruling that “violated our Constitution’s ban on foreign equity in a media firm.”

“Why would the SEC rescind the business license of a truly innovative, viable and popular media company?” asked Brauchli who was also the former executive editor of the Washington Post and former managing editor of the WSJ.

“Filipinos we know are proud of the fact that the first successful digital media company in Southeast Asia took root and flourished in their country,” he added.  “We admire and respect the people, laws, independence and accomplishments of the Philippines.  That’s why we got involved with Rappler.”

Cybercrime law violation

Apart from the alleged foreign ownership of mass media, the NBI is also looking into Rappler’s possible violation of the cybercrime law.

The NBI has summoned Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa, former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr., and businessman Benjamin Bitanga to answer the complaint filed by Chinese-Filipino businessman Wilfredo Keng.

Ressa, Santos and Bitanga are scheduled to appear at the NBI on January 22.

The cybercrime complaint stemmed from the investigative article “CJ using SUVs of ‘controversial’ businessmen” published by Rappler on May 29, 2012.

Keng denied Rappler’s claims that he was the owner of an SUV being used by former Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was then facing an impeachment trial in the Senate when the story was published.

The businessman admitted that he owns a black Chevrolet Suburban, but denied that it had been used by Corona.

In a statement, Ressa said they are ready to answer all the charges against them, maintaining that they had done nothing illegal.

She further condemned the allegations against the news company, tagging it as “attempts to try to turn journalism into a crime.” (With reports from Rae Ann Varona/AJPress) 

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