Int’l media giants condemn SEC move to shut down Rappler

New York Times, Wall Street Journal stand in solidarity with the PH outlet

AS Rappler faces closure after the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) en banc revoked its registration for allegedly violating the country’s Constitution, some of the top media companies have voiced support for the Philippine media outlet.

The company is also being accused of violating the Anti-Dummy Law, the Corporation Code and the Securities Regulation Code.

“The En Banc finds Rappler, Inc. and Rappler Holdings Corporation, a Mass Media Entity and its alter ego, liable for violating the constitutional and statutory Foreign Equity Restriction in Mass Media, enforceable through laws and rules within the mandate of the commission,” read the decision dated January 11, published on Monday, January 15.

Following the ruling, press freedom advocates and Philippine government officials including Vice President Leni Robredo were quick to defend Rappler which has maintained that the accusations are false.

“Yung media, sila ‘yung inaasahan na maging watchdog…  Kung wala nang bantay, ano ‘yung makakahadlang sa pang-aabuso ng mga opisyal ng gobyerno (The media, they are expected to be watchdogs… Without watching, what will prevent the abuse of government officials)?” asked Robredo.

On Wednesday, January 17, the New York Times joined in by calling the SEC ruling “only the tip” of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s attack on media critics.

In its op-ed, 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,” the newspaper 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” the 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.

Under the Philippine Constitution, mass media companies are required to be fully owned by Filipinos.  The SEC said 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 allow companies to invest in media companies without becoming owners.  Many national companies are said to use PDRs.

Marcus Brauchli, co-founder of North Base Media which also has investments in Rappler through PDRs, responded to a letter 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.”

Rappler responded to the ruling Monday by calling it “pure and simple harassment.”

“What this means for you, and for us, is that the Commission is ordering us to close shop, to cease telling you stories, to stop speaking truth to power, and to let go of everything that we have built — and created — with you since 2012,” said a response statement by Rappler.

Rappler argued that in 2015, the SEC had itself accepted the Omidyar-related documents submitted by Rappler.

Palace suggests “blogger accreditation”

Maintaining that the move was not an attack on press freedom but on the compliance of the Filipino ownership rules, Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Wednesday, January 17 that Rappler would still be able to apply for “blogger accreditation”.

“They may need to get accreditation as bloggers because they cannot continue conducting their business as Rappler since that company has, for all intents and purposes, been declared void by the SEC,” said Roque in a press conference in San Fernando, La Union.

“Maria Ressa can continue to blog.  Pia Ranada can continue to blog,” added Roque.

Registration with the SEC is one of the requirements that allows news outlets blanket access to presidential events through membership into the Malacañang Press Corps.

Under the mentioned blogger accreditation which covers “social media practitioners who generate news and information regarding the activities” of the Philippine president, access would be given to bloggers on a per-event basis.

The accreditation though, is granted by the office of the Presidential Communications Operations Office Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, who has not had a friendly history with Rappler.

Mocha likened the SEC ruling announcement to Christmas when speaking to followers in a livestreamed Facebook post the same day of the announcement.

“Tandaan niyo ang araw na ito, Jan. 15, napakagandang araw.  Ramdam na ramdam mo pa din ang Christmas spirit, ngayon ko lang naramdaman ang tunay na diwa ng Pasko (Remember this day, Jan. 15, a very beautiful day.  You can still feel the Christmas spirit; only now do I feel the true meaning of Christmas),” Uson said.

In November of last year, Uson wrote a formal request to Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar for Rappler to be reclassified as “social media” to be given accreditation by her office.

“Rappler, an online publication that has no counterpart print or broadcast arm is technically considered social media.  This should fall under the rules on accreditation by my office,” Uson wrote.

In an interview Wednesday, January 17, Andanar said that no action in that direction would be started until the SEC move was finalized.

“They have the right to go through a process.  They can appeal at the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court and even fix it there with the Securities and Exchange Commission,” said Andanar.

“I will not even decide on that recommendation by Asec Mocha for now.  Let’s wait for the decision of Rappler, what they do to be able to abide by the law,” he added.

Age of “fake news”

On Tuesday, January 16, Duterte made his latest remarks against Rappler during a speech for a new air traffic management system’s inauguration in Pasay City.

“For your information, 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, “ said Duterte in an interview.

“Sumobra kayo (you went too far), you are not only throwing toilet paper, you are throwing shit at us,” he added.  His answers were in response to recent articles published about the Special Assistant to the President Bong Go, which claim Go had been meddling in warship acquisitions.

Formed in 2012, the media company has grown to become the tenth most visited website in the country, according to Alexa.  The company has nearly seven million followers across its social media account and has expanded its local coverage to Indonesia.

The issue of “fake news” has become a burning topic in the recent media landscape, especially in the Philippines where nearly 97 percent of online Filipinos use Facebook which has proven to be a powerful platform for sharing information as evident by both Rappler and Duterte’s administration.

Headlines once linked to a report from Facebook that called Duterte the “undisputed king of Facebook conversations.”

In an in-depth Bloomberg article, Rappler’s CEO Maria Ressa was quoted being open to the opportunities Facebook offered in politics.

“At the beginning I actually loved it because I felt like this was untapped potential,” Bloomberg quoted Ressa saying.

Ressa and Duterte had once sat across from each other for a question and answer Rappler forum called #TheLeaderIWant that was broadcasted on 200 television and radio stations, and live streamed at viewing parties in over 40 colleges across the nation.

“Duterte’s campaign on social media was groundbreaking,” she added.

But in the following months, the company found itself under attack for its coverage of the administration’s war on drugs, its social media practices, and general ruling style.

After writing an article titled “Propaganda War:  Weaponizing the Internet” in October 2016, Ressa said she almost immediately began receiving hate messages, many of which were violent.  An armed guard was hired to stand outside her office.

Shortly after, a campaign for unfollowing Rappler was launched, causing the outlet to lose approximately 52,000 Facebook followers.

The campaign was promoted by public figures like Uson who was personally mentioned in the Rappler piece.

Ressa wrote in an article published last November after the company was recognized by the National Democratic Institute, that she had received more threats since founding Rappler than in the three decades she has worked as a conflict reporter and war zone correspondent.

She also expressed concern over Facebook’s role in monitoring fake news.

“They haven’t done anything to deal with the fundamental problem, which is they’re allowing lies to be treated the same way as truth and spreading it,” Ressa wrote.  “Either they’re negligent or they’re complicit in state-sponsored hate.”

But now, the priority has shifted heavily on the SEC decision. In a post to the company’s Instagram handle, Ressa said, “We are prepared. Bring it. We will continue to fight it and we will continue to push the government to respect and to maintain the rule of law.”

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