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Revocation of Rappler license ‘sinister’ state regulation vs. ‘critical’ media —HRW

The revocation of multimedia news outlet Rappler’s license to operate suggests “sinister” state regulation at play to muzzle “critical media voices,” said international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday.

“The government’s move to shutter Rappler suggests a sinister use of state regulatory processes to stifle critical media voices,” said HRW’s Asia Deputy Director Phelim Kine in a statement.

Echoing the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of the Philippines, he warned of a chilling effect, or the discouragement of exercising a legal action out of fear of penalty, should “Duterte succeed in silencing Rappler.”

“If Duterte succeeds in silencing Rappler, it will have a profound chilling effect on Philippine media freedom, encouraging self-censorship by reporters and media outlets fearful of government reprisals for critical reporting at a time when the watchdog role of a free press is more urgently needed than ever,” Kine wrote.

He was reacting to the ruling handed down by regulating body Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to the independent media organization, canceling its certificate of incorporation over issues on alleged foreign ownership, which Rappler management has denied.

But the SEC decision, which followed “months of withering criticism and harassment” by pro-President Rodrigo Duterte social media users, was “not wholly unexpected,” he said, recalling Duterte’s allegation that Rappler was “fully owned by Americans” during his State of the Nation Address last year.

“The Philippine media is just the latest in a growing list of institutions and individuals – including United Nations officials – who have been vilified by Duterte for seeking accountability for human rights violation,” wrote Kine.

The HRW is critical of the Duterte administration’s bloody crackdown on illegal drugs and its users and peddlers, saying in the statement that the President has sought to “quash any meaningful inquiries” on alleged police crimes related to the war on drugs.

Rappler has likewise published pieces critical of the Duterte administration, including stories on internet trolls allegedly hired by Duterte’s people “to sow misinformation on social media,” and a series on the war on drugs.

Kine disclosed in the statement that the family of the owner of US-based Rappler investor Omidyar Network is a "longtime donor" to HRW.

The SEC ruling called the Omidyar investment a "deceptive scheme" that skirted Philippine policy against foreign ownership of mass media.

Amnesty International also commented on the matter, saying the SEC decision is "an alarming attempt to silence independent journalism."

Rappler said Monday it will exhaust all legal remedies to contest the SEC decision and may bring the case before the Supreme Court.

Malacañang on Monday said the SEC decision is not an attack on press freedom.

"[The Constitutuon] limits media ownership to Filipinos. Rappler has to [comply]. [It's] about a [constitutional] prohibition. [Can't] be Marcosian," presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a text message.

In a statement, Roque said that mass media entities should abide by the Constitution's restrictions on ownership and management.

Duterte has also accused media organizations ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer of unfair reporting, saying they are owned by “oligarchs.” —Nicole-Anne C. Lagrimas/KG, GMA News