Filipino Journalists Take to Streets Against Govt Clamp-Down on Rappler

Karl Romano
180119-PH-rally-1000.jpg Rappler staffers join fellow journalists and supporters in a protest for press freedom, in Manila, Jan. 19, 2018.

More than 200 Filipino journalists came out Friday in a show of unity for press freedom in their country, as they protested in public against a government move to shutter Rappler, a popular news website.

Wearing black and carrying signs with slogans such as “Defend Press Freedom,” the journalists held a peaceful rally in Manila to denounce what they described as President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on media and to warn that, if unchallenged, he was leading the Philippines toward dictatorship.

“Press freedom and freedom of expression stand side-by-side with the people’s right to know,” said Filipino journalist Malou Mangahas, who heads the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

“If there is no free press, there would be no complete coverage” of critical issues that the public need to know, she said, adding, “This is a story of the Filipino people wanting to free itself from abridgements of [the] freedom of the press.”

Simultaneous protests took place at other sites on Friday, and media groups here and elsewhere in the region sent messages of solidarity for the Filipino press, which is considered to be one of the freest in Asia since dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986.

During Marcos’ rule, newspapers and news outlets were shut down and journalists were jailed, while thousands of activists went missing and were believed killed. Marcos and his family were accused of plundering state coffers as the rest of the country wallowed in abject poverty.

Mangahas warned that the local press faced more problems under Duterte’s rule, with more than 50 Catholic radio stations, which have criticized his administration’s deadly war on illegal drugs, facing a likely shutdown by Congress controlled by the president’s allies. Under Philippine law, broadcast franchises are granted by the House of Representatives.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of the Philippines, one of the first media organizations to back Rappler, said it supported the rally and vowed to “stand the line.”

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), which led the “Black Friday” protest, said the recent closure order proved that Duterte would “stop at nothing to shut down critical voices.”

“We cannot allow this to happen,” the group said, likening Duterte’s move to the Marcos dictatorship.

‘No attempt to muzzle the free press’

The protest came days after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) slapped a closure order on Rappler, accusing it of partly being owned by foreigners who hold “Philippine depository receipts (PDRs)” issued by the news website. The SEC charged that this was a violation of a constitutional provision that called for full Filipino ownership of media outlets.

Rappler contends that issuing PDRs did not mean that the American groups – the U.S.-based Omidyar Network and North Base Media – were allowed to dictate the website’s editorial policies. It said the two firms were only holders of PDRs, the same investment instrument that other Filipino firms, including the Philippines’ biggest networks, have used.

Duterte has backed the SEC ruling, and accused Rappler of peddling “fake news.” The president insisted the issue was not about press freedom but about the firm’s flaunting of the law on ownership.

On Friday, Duterte spokesman Martin Andanar said the government was not clamping down on democracy. He pointed out journalists were allowed to protest in the streets that same day.

“Well, the fact that the NUJP can freely speak like that and they are allowed to rally and to peacefully assemble and express their opinions and feelings is proof that there is no attempt to muzzle the free press,” Andanar told government radio.

“The issue of Rappler is plainly a legal issue, that the Securities and Exchange Commission has seen them commit a violation of the constitution,” he said. “It’s purely a corporate legal matter.”

Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.


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