The order to close Rappler is part of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war against the media

The order to close Rappler is part of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war against the media

The order to close Rappler is part of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war against the media

Updated 17 January 2018, 18:30 AEDT

The Philippines are one step closer to full authoritarianism, as the Duterte regime attempts to shut down a major independent news outlet, writes David Lozada.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been engaged in a war against the media since he was elected in May 2016.

The foul-mouthed leader has often accused local and international journalists of being biased, of being too critical of his regime's bloody drug war, and of being part of a destabilisation plot against him. This, of course, is an absurdity and nothing more than the usual paranoia of authoritarian leaders.

But the Duterte regime's latest move is straight out of a dictator's playbook.

On Monday, the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked the licence of online news site Rappler on the basis that it is foreign-owned — although it isn't.

Rappler was targeted for being critical of the president. It has become one of the biggest social news network in the Philippines since its launch in 2012. It is one of few independent media outlets left in the country.

Rappler chief executive, the former CNN south-east Asia bureau chief Maria Ressa, called the move politically motivated.

Story-telling for nation-building

I worked for Rappler straight out of college, from 2013 to 2016, as a multimedia reporter and community manager.

Rappler's thrust has always been to create stories that "inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change."

In the four years I spent with the company, we trained hundreds of students and campus journalists for free and created a nationwide network of citizen journalists, who also act as advocates in their areas.

We created an online campaign about the growing HIV epidemic in the country, which ultimately led to an increase in HIV testing in key population groups. We created a disaster information platform which has saved countless lives in the typhoons that followed Haiyan in 2013.

Rappler is all about storytelling for nation-building. But that changed with the Duterte regime.

Journalists attacked

Philippine media has been on the ropes in the past two years. Rappler was particularly hit for its critically-acclaimed Impunity Series which documented the drug war during Duterte's first year. The attacks worsened after the news organisation released an investigative series that showed how Duterte and his allies were weaponising the Internet and using trolls and fake accounts to shape public sentiment.

Ressa, who wrote part of the series, received the worst of the attacks. She got 90 hate messages in her Facebook account per hour. Most came from trolls but some came from hard core Duterte supporters who wished her death or "to get raped."

This kind of intimidation of journalists has become the norm in the Duterte regime.

Female reporters especially receive sexually-charged verbal abuse for doing their jobs of telling the truth.

I have received hate messages for writing stories that are critical of the government. It is traumatic to read comments from people who want you to die for what you wrote. And I'm sure I'll receive more when this piece is published.

The Duterte government is hell-bent on stifling dissent and silencing opposition.

Other news organisations have actually toned down their critical reporting of the president because of his threats.

ABS-CBN, the country's largest broadcast television network, was threatened with non-renewal of their franchise in 2020. After pressure and intimidation, the owners of The Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country's largest newspaper, were also forced to sell their stakes to a Duterte ally.

False accusations

The main argument the government is using against Rappler is its alleged foreign ownership. Duterte singled out Rappler in his 2017 State of the Nation Address saying the news organisation is fully owned by Americans. This is a lie.

Philippine law states that media firms should be 100 per cent Filipino-owned. The government is targeting Rappler for Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs) it issued to two foreign investors in 2015 — North Base Media and Omidyar Network.

PDRs are basically financial instruments that are tied to the price of shares of the company but they do not grant ownership. In the words of Ressa, it's like betting on a horse race. Even if you place a huge bet on a horse, you do not have any control over who will become the jockey nor the dietary supplements the horse should have. But if the horse wins, you get your return on investment. (This piece by a Harvard lawyer explains it well.)

The Securities and Exchange Commission approved Rappler's PDRs in 2015. Philippine companies including media giants ABS-CBN and GMA have been using PDRs for decades.

A throwback to Marcos

Who cares if a media organisation with only 100 people is shut down by the Philippine government? The debate is more than that.

Rappler is one of few independent media organisations in the Philippines. It is one of few news agencies that are not afraid of speaking truth to power and exposing government abuses.

Duterte's tactics have been described as Marcosian. From 1965 to 1986, during the darkest days of Philippine history, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos stifled human rights under martial rule. This period started with the jailing of activists and the shutting down of the free press.

The current intimidation of media organisations like Rappler is an encroachment on the freedom of the press by Duterte, who has repeatedly voiced admiration of Marcos.

This is a step towards full authoritarianism in the Philippines.

With the current wave of authoritarianism hitting the globe, it is incumbent upon the media to continue doing its job of holding the government to account. Journalists and newsrooms worldwide need to help each other in fighting for the truth and freedom of expression.

The deadliest country

Ressa has said Rappler will seek legal remedies against the SEC decision and in the meantime, it's business as usual for its journalists. The case may eventually reach the Supreme Court, where Rappler's chances are bleak, given the Court has sided with the Duterte regime on past decisions like burying Marcos in the Heroes Cemetery and using martial law in Mindanao.

But there is hope. Its readers, academic institutions, local civil society organisations, and international NGOs have voiced support for Rappler. Philippine media and some opposition lawmakers have also raised alarm against the government's move. Whether such pressure will influence the Duterte administration's actions, only time will tell.

The Philippines was the deadliest country for journalists in Asia in 2017.

With the Duterte regime's war on freedom of expression, I fear it will only get worse.

David Lozada is a former journalist for Rappler. He is studying for a Master's of Development Studies at The University of Melbourne.