In a country where press freedom is already under grave threat, the revocation of an independent publication’s license to operate and a proposed amendment to the Bill of Rights are pushing journalists further into the margins. While the Constitution of the Philippines guarantees press freedom and the country’s media landscape is quite diverse, journalists nevertheless face an array of threats. Libel threats and advertising boycotts are common, and the country ranks fifth in the world in terms of impunity for killing journalists.
And since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, press freedom in the Philippines has taken a further blow. Like President Trump, Duterte enjoys going after individual media outlets that criticize his policies, creating an increasingly chilled atmosphere for the country’s independent journalists and free speech.
In an unprecedented move, the Duterte administration’s Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked the registration of independent news organization, Rappler, and ordered them to close up shop. Rappler has been a vocal critic of the Duterte regime and appears to be targeted for its criticism of the current administration, especially when contrasted with how other pro-Duterte bloggers and outlets have been rewarded with government positions or hired as consultants using public funds.
The Duterte administration’s SEC claims its decision to revoke Rappler’s registration was based on an alleged violation of the Foreign Equity Restriction in Mass Media by accepting funds from the Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar that has contributed to independent media outlets all over the world, like the Intercept and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The SEC had accepted and approved Rappler’s Philippine Depository Receipt (PDR) for contributions from the Omidyar Network back in 2015. A PDR is a financial instrument that does not give the investor voting rights in the board or a say in the management of the organization.
But when President Duterte went after Rappler (as well as broadcast network ABS-CBN) in his July 2017 State of the Nation address, claiming that the company was owned by foreigners, the pressure began to mount. The president later repeated this claim, stating that the company was violating a Constitutional requirement of domestic ownership. Under this increasing pressure from the Duterte administration, the SEC voided the Omidyar PDR last week and revoked Rappler’s Certificate of Incorporation.
Rappler expressed dismay at the “misrepresentations, outward lies, and malice contained in criticisms of Rappler” and maintains that it has complied with all SEC regulations and acted in good faith in adhering to all requirements “even at the risk of exposing [its] corporate data to irresponsible hands with an agenda.” Rappler continues to stand firm in its conviction that it is “100% Filipino-owned” and has not violated any Constitutional restrictions in accepting money from foreign philanthropic investors. Rappler intends to contest the SEC’s revocation “through all legal processes available” in its fight for freedom of the press.
But the Philippine government is taking things even a step further with a push to mandate “responsible speech”. The House of Representatives has moved to amend Article 3, Section 4 of the Constitution's Bill of Rights, which currently states “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances” to read “No law shall be passed abridging the responsible exercise of the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” As opinion writer Ellen T. Tordesillas noted, the movement is similar to a 2006 attempt by the government of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The movement may have officially come from the house, but the proposal was actually created by a committee under the office of the president. On a talk show, former solicitor general Florin Hilbay criticized the proposal, stating that “The danger in inserting the word ‘responsible’ is that you’re giving the state power to define responsibility.”
We agree. Handing power over to government authorities to determine what is or isn’t "responsible" is always dangerous, and in the case of Duterte—a president who has targeted journalists, drug users, and communists—could prove deadly. We call on the Philippines to respect the fundamental right to freedom of expression and remind the country of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which allows for only narrow legal limitations to the right to freedom of expression. Furthermore, we stand in solidarity with Rappler, the Foundation for Media Alternatives in its Statement on Press Freedom and Free Speech, as well as the journalists, students, bloggers, and local and international advocates who have taken a stand against the Duterte government’s “alarming attempt to silence independent journalism.”