In a first of its kind, two global media watchdogs have kicked off a fund-raising campaign for the legal defense of Rappler, a Philippine news website that reports critically about the government’s deadly drugs war but has been accused of tax evasion.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund said Rappler was chosen as the first recipient of its fund in order to help the embattled news portal carry on with its journalism.
“Rappler has been a leading source of independent information and an inspiration to journalists around the world who continue to report in the face of repression,” Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, said in a statement issued Tuesday.
“We intend to stand with Maria Ressa and Rappler and to support them in their efforts to defend themselves against the prosecution that we view as unjust,” he added.
The fund provides legal support for journalists, news organizations, and whistle blowers who are targeted by powerful figures because they have tried to expose information that is in the public interest, the media watchdogs said.
So far, U.S. the fund has accumulated about $100,000 in money, but the watchdogs said they aimed to raise a total of $500,000 to cover legal fees for targeted news organizations.
Journalism was under assault across the globe, said Jim Risen, director of the Press Freedom Defense Fund.
“Legal battles are one of several tactics used to silence journalists,” Risen said.
Ressa, Rappler’s CEO, said that its reporting on the drug war, which has killed thousands of suspected narcotics dealers and users, had put the government of President Rodrigo Duterte on the defensive.
“This year has been challenging on many fronts for us, but there is a silver lining: the attacks against Rappler helped mobilize global support for journalism and the journalists on the front lines,” Ressa said. “This is an unprecedented alliance for unprecedented times.”
The state’s moves against Rappler started when their reporters were banned from covering official presidential functions, arguing that they were not real journalists after the portal published stories about Duterte’s drug war.
According to Philippine law enforcement officials, more than 5,000 suspects have been killed in counter-narcotics operations since mid-2016, when Duterte took office. International and local rights groups, however, have estimated a higher figure of about 12,000 deaths.
Earlier this month, Ressa, a former CNN bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta, posted bail of up 60,000 pesos (U.S. $1,154) after a local court issued an arrest warrant against her.
The warrant came after the government accused Rappler of violating the country’s tax code when the company allegedly misrepresented its tax returns when it issued Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR) for some of its former U.S.-based investors.
The government had moved earlier to shut down the website, saying it violated a constitutional provision that all media entities based in the country should be fully owned by Filipinos.
Rappler’s American investors subsequently let go of their PDRs. The case would have ended there, but the government alleged that she failed to properly pay taxes on the sale or transfer of the PDRs.
Earlier this month, Time magazine named Ressa as part of “The Guardians,” a group of journalists from around the world who were honored collectively as the news publication’s 2018 Person of the Year.
Other honorees included slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who was jailed without charge for more than three months in 2018 for alleged defamation against his country’s government, and two young Reuters correspondents who were imprisoned this year by Myanmar authorities in connection with their reporting on an extrajudicial mass execution of 10 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines contributed to this report.