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Nobel laureate Maria Ressa vows to fight Philippines order shutting Rappler site

Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent, The Guardian, Wed 29 Jun 2022 04.37 BST

‘Kill’ order to revoke news website’s certificates of incorporation made in final days of Rodrigo Duterte’s rule

The Nobel prize winner Maria Ressa has said she will challenge an order shutting down Rappler, the news website she co-founded, vowing the outlet will not succumb to harassment and intimidation.

Rappler, which has been widely praised for scrutinising the administration of the outgoing Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, has faced relentless legal charges and investigations.

The latest case relates to an allegation that Rappler violated restrictions on foreign ownership in media – a claim that Rappler denies.

On Tuesday the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a business regulator, affirmed an earlier decision to revoke Rappler’s certificates of incorporation over the matter. The decision, said Rappler, “effectively confirmed the shutdown” of the outlet.

The announcement comes just days before Duterte stands down and his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son and namesake of the late dictator, takes office.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Ressa said the news site would challenge the decision. “We continue to work. It is business as usual… [We] will follow the legal process, we will continue to stand up for our rights,” she said.

Rachel Obordo

In a statement the SEC said it had affirmed the revocation of Rappler’s certificates of incorporation, adding Rappler breached “constitutional and statutory restrictions on foreign ownership in mass media” when it accepted funding from the Omidyar Network, the philanthropic arm of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. This had given Omidyar Network “control over the media organisation”, it said in a statement.

Rappler has said Omidyar Network was issued Philippine depositary receipts, and that these do not equate to ownership. Omidyar Network was, Rappler has said, a silent investor with no control over day-to-day operations. Omidyar Network also later donated PDRs to Rappler’s Filipino managers.

Ressa said the arrangement was not a violation of the constitution, but that Rappler had been targeted throughout Duterte’s presidency. “We have been harassed. This is intimidation. These are political tactics. We refuse to succumb to them,” she said.

“Our goal is to continue holding the line,” Ressa said. “We’re not going to voluntarily give up our rights. And we really shouldn’t. I’ve continued to appeal for that. Because when you give up your rights, you’re never going to get them back.”

She likened the environment in the Philippines to being on quicksand, and said the outlet had “plans A through to Z”.

Ressa faces seven legal cases, including allegations of tax evasion and cyber libel, which have been widely condemned by media freedom advocates and rights groups. Last year, Ressa, along with the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the Nobel peace prize for efforts to “safeguard freedom of expression”.

The media has faced intense pressure under the Duterte’s presidency. In 2020, the country’s biggest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was ordered off air. Last week the National Telecommunications Commission blocked access to 28 websites, including Bulatlat, a news site that focuses on human rights.

The government has denied that legal cases against Rappler or others are politically motivated.

There are fears about the prospects for journalists under the administration of the incoming president, Marcos Jr. His father, Marcos Sr, who was ousted in 1986, was notorious for imposing martial law and shutting down all independent media. Marcos Jr has also been criticised for evading scrutiny during election campaigning, including by skipping presidential debates and dodging questions from journalists perceived to be unfriendly.

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Ressa said she hoped for the best under the incoming administration, but added: “Given the track record of the [election] campaign. Given the track record of 36 years [since Marcos Sr was ousted] I think the burden of proof is actually on the incoming administration. I continue to appeal to the incoming administration to work with journalists. We’re here to help you give a better future for the Philippines, we’re not your enemies.”

Francis Lim, Rappler’s legal counsel, said Rappler strongly disagreed with the decision by SEC. “Fortunately for us, we have legal remedies available to question the decision before our courts of law,” he said.