US reiterates free speech support following Rappler shutdown order

Camille Elemia
2022.06.29
Manila
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US reiterates free speech support following Rappler shutdown order Douglas Emhoff, the husband of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, visits the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, June 29, 2022.
Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews

Updated at 3:50 p.m. ET on 2022-06-29

The United States on Wednesday reiterated its commitment to global press freedom following the Philippine government’s latest move to shut down online news website Rappler. 

Douglas Emhoff, the husband of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, was reacting to news that the Philippines' Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had released a new directive for Rappler to cease operations. Emhoff is leading a U.S. delegation attending the inauguration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as the country’s new president on Thursday.

“I know, on behalf of the president and vice president, the entire administration, it’s just a deep commitment toward freedom of speech, freedom of expression, human rights, and that’s what we stand for, that’s what we believe,” Emhoff told reporters when asked about the directive while visiting the Manila American Cemetery in Taguig city, a suburb of Manila.  

“The United States encourages freedom of speech, freedom of the press wherever we are in the world.”

Rappler has been critical of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte and the drug war executed during his six-year term that has killed thousands of alleged drug dealers and addicts. Separately, Rappler’s chief executive, Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, is appealing a conviction of cyber libel, which she maintains is part of government harassment to silence the news site.

In a briefing from Honolulu after the SEC order, Ressa said it was “business as usual” for the company “because the proceedings were highly irregular.”

The website remains online in the Philippines.

“We’ve gone through this. We have plans A to Z. Our goal is to continue holding the line. We’re not going to voluntarily give away our rights,” Ressa said.

AP22180221342909.jpg
A Rappler staffer in Pasig city, Philippines, monitors a zoom meeting with CEO Maria Ressa from Hawaii, June 29, 2022. [Aaron Favila/AP]

‘Deep bond’

Emhoff, meanwhile, noted that the U.S. and the Philippines had shared a “very long-standing deep bond,” likely referring to a decades-old mutual defense treaty that calls on them to come to each other’s aid in times of aggression.

He said the administration of President Joe Biden looked forward to “continuing a very close and deep relationship” with the new government and that he expected to meet one-on-one with the new president after his inauguration. 

“The United States is very much looking forward to working with the Marcos administration on a variety of issues and we’ll continue to move this relationship forward into the future,” he said.

Ties soured in the early years of the Duterte administration when he chose to work closely with traditional U.S. rivals China and Russia.

The Filipino leader was angered by what he perceived as U.S. interference in the country’s domestic affairs after it called on him to respect human rights in his anti-drug war. Duterte  terminated a military pact that allowed U.S. troops to train here, but subsequently reinstated it. 

Critical media crackdown 

The SEC previously ordered Rappler’s closure in January 2018 amid accusations that it had skirted a constitutional ban on foreign ownership of the media, a contention denied by Rappler.

The regulator reaffirmed its ruling on Tuesday, saying that Rappler’s earlier sale of investment instruments to a foreign entity made it partly owned by foreigners.

Rappler had argued that the Omidyar Network, an investment firm founded by EBay founder Pierre Omidyar, was not involved in daily operations. Omidyar, meanwhile, cut ties by donating the investment instruments to Rappler's staff.

The appellate court upheld the regulator’s ruling but asked it to review the legal effect of the donations.

“After a careful study of all the pleadings and arguments of the parties, the special panel concluded that the purported donation of the Philippine Depository Receipts to the staff of Rappler neither created nor transferred any right in favor of the donees which would mitigate or cure the violation already committed,” the SEC said in the statement issued on June 28. 

With this decision, the commission said the Court of Appeals’ ruling had become final.

Rappler argued that it had not exhausted all legal remedies and can appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court. 

“It’s not the end of the world for us. There is still a long process for us. There are coherent and powerful legal grounds,” said Francis Lim, the news organization’s attorney.

Other news sites blocked

Rights groups challenged the directive, issued just days before Marcos takes control of the government.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said Rappler was facing government retaliation for its reporting about the drug war, disinformation campaigns on social media, and “a wide variety of rights abusing actions over the past six years.” 

“This is an effort to shut up Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and shut down Rappler, by hook or by crook,” he said in a statement.

“So it’s entirely predictable that the SEC would bend over backward to interpret rules in a way that would enable them to take Rappler down while spuriously claiming that this is a normal regulatory action. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that’s not the case.” 

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines issued a statement on Twitter in support of Rappler.

“Throughout the six years of the Duterte administration, we have seen lawsuits and regulatory processes used as tools to muzzle the press and these, as much as the touted infrastructure projects, form part of the Duterte legacy,” the statement said.

“It is clear now, if it had not been clear before, that the journalism community and the communities that we report about and for must stand together against government moves to harass, restrict and silence any of us to keep the press free for all of us.”

The directive comes about a week after the government blocked two Philippine news sites and a dozen other websites over their alleged ties to terror organizations.

The government has gone after other media deemed to be critical of Duterte’s administration.

In 2020, lawmakers failed to renew the license of ABS-CBN, blocking the country’s largest broadcaster from airing programs on its public channels, following Duterte’s attacks and threats against the media organization over its reporting on the drug war and other controversial policies.

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