Press Crackdown: Philippines Revokes License of Popular News Site Critical of Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks on the second day of the APEC CEO Summit, taking place ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 9, 2017. World leaders and senior business figures are gathering in the Vietnamese city of Danang …

Authorities in the Philippines have revoked the operating license of Rappler, one of the country’s most popular news websites.

The country’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said that the company’s part-ownership by investors in the United States was a violation of a constitutional clause requiring all media organizations to be owned by Filipino citizens. Critics say that Rappler’s thorough coverage of Philippine politics, including articles critical of Duterte, intimidated the SEC into silencing the journalists, a violation of international press norms.

The government cited funding from the Omidyar Network—belonging to the founder of auction site eBay Pierre Morad Omidyar, who invested in the website in 2015—as the reason for their citation. The network has given nearly $1.22 billion to organizations around the world. The SEC claims that support from Omidyar to Rappler amounts to a “fraudulent transaction.”

“The En Banc finds Rappler, Inc. and Rappler Holdings Corporation, a Mass Media Entity and its alter ego, liable for violating the constitutional and statutory Foreign Equity Restriction in Mass Media, enforceable through laws and rules within the mandate of the commission,” the SEC announced on its website on Monday.

Omidyar has attracted attention over the past year for his efforts to combat “fake news” and last April announced plans to donate $100 million to fund investigative journalism and combat “hate speech” on the internet. He also provided legal assistance to the left-wing website Gawker in their legal defense against Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel, a lawsuit that was eventually lost.

Rappler is owned and run by CEO Maria Ressa, a Philippine national as required by law, who on Tuesday said she was “preparing for the worst.”

“We are asking and fighting for due process. If they decide they are going to arrest me, I will have bail. What can you do? We live in this country,” she said.

In addition to criticism of Duterte, Rappler was also the website that published a transcript of President Donald Trump’s private phone call with Duterte, in which Trump praised him for his “unbelievable job” on tackling drug crime. The website also notably published the first known interview with an Islamic State child soldier in Marawi, the nation’s only Islamic City, during the siege there in May.

Rappler also boasts extensive sports and entertainment coverage.

The decision has led to concerns that Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian style of governance could be extending to infringements on freedom of the press, although a spokesperson for Duterte denied this was the case.

“The issue at hand is the compliance of 100 percent Filipino ownership and management of mass media,” Roque said. “No one is above the law. Rappler has to comply.”

Opposition politicians remained critical of the move, describing it as “straight out of the dictator’s playbook” and a “win for fake news.”

“I urge the public and all media practitioners to defend press freedom and the right to speak truth to power,” said Senator Risa Hontiveros, while Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV described it as “a win for fake news, and a loss for dissenting voices and free speech.”

In a post on Rappler’s website, the company confirmed they would appeal the ruling, arguing that they complied with all SEC regulations, and asked their readers to “stand with us again at this difficult time”:

Every year since we incorporated in 2012, we have dutifully complied with all SEC regulations and submitted all requirements even at the risk of exposing our corporate data to irresponsible hands with an agenda. Transparency, we believe, is the best proof of good faith and good conduct.

All these seem not to matter as far as the SEC is concerned. In a record investigation time of 5 months and after President Duterte himself blasted Rappler in his second SONA in July 2017, the SEC released thisruling against us. This is pure and simple harassment, the seeming coup de grace to the relentless and malicious attacks against us since 2016:

We intend to not only 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.

Suspicions over a press clampdown are heightened given that Rappler was a vocal critic of Duterte’s security crackdown, that has involved the targeting of communists, Islamists, and drug traffickers.

International authorities fear widespread claims of human rights abuses at the hands of his security forces, while last September Duterte cut the country’s human rights commission to just $20 a year.

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