President Rodrigo Duterte used profanity-filled comments Tuesday to defend his government’s move to shut down news website Rappler, a decision that angered Philippine press advocates and triggered accusations of authoritarianism.
A day after government regulators revoked the license of Rappler, a website that has criticized Duterte’s government, the president confronted a Rappler journalist at a late-evening press forum and accused her publication of unfair reporting.
Calling Rappler a “fake news outlet,” Duterte said the move to shut it down was above board and should not be tied to suppression of press freedom, as the news portal had alleged.
“The issue here is not press freedom ... and you are not even constitutionally allowed to go into the media with a pretext of that depository. What kind of a son of bitch is that,” Duterte told reporters.
He accused Rappler of abusing “the holy grail of press freedom.”
“You are not only throwing toilet paper, you are throwing shit at us,” the 72-year-old leader said.
Earlier Tuesday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said that the government had not infringed on “the freedom of the press of Rappler or any of its reporters,” who could still undertake their duties as journalists while the order was being finalized and executed.
However, he alleged, the news site had committed a constitutional violation by issuing “Philippine depository receipts (PDR),” or investment instruments, which effectively made it partly owned by foreigners.
He said the holders of the PDRs were “given the same right to control the company in terms of amending the articles and the bylaws,” a contention that had been denied repeatedly by Rappler.
“There is no affront to freedom of the press, because there is no censorship,” Roque told reporters, arguing that the government, on the contrary, was only upholding constitutional roles limiting media ownership to locals.
‘Pure and simple harassment’
He said if Duterte had wanted to silence media critics, he could easily have launched a crackdown – a statement that did not sit well with free press and rights advocacy groups.
“If the president wanted to do that, he could have just sent the armed forces to their offices and padlocked them, which has been done by other regimes. The president has never done that,” Roque said, adding that “no one” was exempt from the law.
He said the PDR was made as part of “an elaborate scheme to circumvent the constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership.” That made the Rappler case stand out, not because the website was being singled out, Roque stressed.
He said Duterte had taken exception to “unfair” comments by Rappler editor and CEO Maria Ressa, who claimed that his government had violated press freedom.
“Before you criticize others, look into the mirror. Look at yourself first,” Roque said, stressing that the president “had nothing to do with this decision.”
“He was not even aware that there was this decision coming up,” he said.
On Monday, the Philippine media industry was thrown into disarray after the presidential office announced that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had ordered the closure of Rappler, an award-wining news site that has criticized the Duterte administration’s war on illegal drugs, which has killed thousands.
In its order, the SEC said Rappler had come up with a “deceptive scheme to circumvent” the ownership rules, an allegation that the online publication rejected and vowed to appeal.
Rappler said it had been transparent in all its SEC filings and that the government knew that some foreigners owned some of its PDRs.
Among them are the U.S.-based Omidyar Network, owned by e-Bay founder Pierre Omidyar and North Base Media, owned and founded by a group of journalists advocating a free and independent press.
Rappler said it was warned as early as December that a ruling against it was going to be made, but said it had been confident that the SEC would eventually rule in its favor.
“The SEC’s kill order revoking Rappler’s license to operate is the first kind in history – both for the Commission and for Philippine media,” it said, calling the move a “pure and simple harassment.”
“We intend not only to contest this through all legal processes available to us, but also to fight for our freedom to do journalism and for your right to be heard through an independent platform like Rappler,” the company said in a letter to its readers on Monday.
Media groups protest
Various media organizations immediately came to Rappler’s defense, with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap) expressing “deep regret” over the decision.
It said the order was “tantamount to killing the online news site” and sent a “chilling effect” to media organizations at a time when they needed the most to counter fake news.
“An assault against journalists is an assault against democracy,” said the organization, founded in the 1970s at the height of the dictatorship regime of Ferdinand Marcos, who padlocked all independent television, radio stations and the press.
Other organizations that also opposed the ruling were the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.
The SEC decision, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said, should be sounding the alarm “not only among journalists but for all Filipinos who believe in democracy and in the vital role that the media plays in holding government accountable.”
“The SEC decision came swiftly, failing to observe due process,” CMFR added. “The pattern suggests a policy of assaulting and weakening the press as an institution.”
The loss of “truth-telling” press freedom and democracy was at stake, it warned.
According to the National Union of Journalists, the closure order was a vendetta by Duterte, who had frequently voiced out warnings to go after media groups that were critical of his young administration.
It named Rappler as one of three Filipino firms being targeted, along with the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN Corp. All three have been closely reporting on his government’s drug war.
With over 30 broadsheets and tabloids operation across the country, the Philippine is considered one of the freest democracies since a “People power” revolt toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
His successor, democracy icon Corazon Aquino, presided over the passing of a constitution that guaranteed a free and unfettered press, which, she said, was necessary for a democratic country to work.