The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) said the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) treated the news organization Rappler more harshly than PLDT when it faced the foreign-ownership woes as the telecommunications giant.
In a statement on Tuesday, the PCIJ said that PLDT was allowed to continue its operations normally despite facing a Supreme Court case for supposedly exceeding the 60-40 constitutional limit on foreign ownership.
This is in contrast to the SEC ordering the immediate revocation of the certificates of incorporation of Rappler Inc. and Rappler Holdings Corp. for allegedly failing to comply with foreign ownership rules.
"The SEC seem to have glossed over the fact that the harshest penalty of revoking the corporate registration of the Rappler would have impaired its delivery of news and information on matters of public concern, or even the Constitutional guarantees of press freedom and the people's right to know," PCIJ said.
It brought up allegations that SEC Memorandum Circular 8, series of 2013, or Guidelines on Compliance with the Filipino-Foreign Ownership Requirements was "tailor-made" to allow PLDT to skirt the foreign ownership rules on public utilities.
The PCIJ also alluded to separate rulings in 2011 and 2012 by the Supreme Court ruling that the SEC must treat shareholders entitled to vote and not entitled to vote company directors as separate classes when determining a company's "capital."
"In its decision on Rappler, the SEC has morphed from lenient to severe," they said.
Furthermore, the media organization said the political context of the story could not be ignored, and the courts that will handle this case must take heed of its implications on press freedom.
"It is happening amid the internecine outbursts of displeasure and vitriol by President Rodrigo R. Duterte and his closest allies against Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, ABS-CBN, and generally journalists and media entities on the independent and critical reporting track," they said.
"Regulators and the courts would do well to deal with allegations of legal infractions by the media with utmost fairness, probity, and independence so they do not undermine further the Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press and the people's right to know, or worse, put the media now under duress in greater jeopardy and undue censure."
Just like the advocacy group CenterLaw, PCIJ pointed out that the constitutional "guarantee of freedom of the press could have prevailed over the constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership of media corporations, if the latter indeed is an issue with Rappler."
PCIJ said the SEC could have imposed fines, ordered Rappler to amend its papers, or unload its foreign investments instead of revoking its certificates of registration.
In the meantime, "Rappler's journalists have pledged to continue to write and report without fear or favour, and we can offer them our unrelenting support."
"Rappler and all independent media agencies must live to write for many more days and years, and outlast all the enemies of truth, good governance, and justice in this land," the PCIJ wrote.
Rappler CEO Maria Ressa said the SEC decision was a form of "political pressure" and had nothing to do with foreign ownership restrictions on mass media companies.