Philippines government under fire over decision to shutter news site

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The government has come under fire at home and abroad over the decision of a regulatory agency to shutter one of the country’s leading independent news sites that has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines voiced its outrage over the ruling and called on all Philippine journalists “to unite and resist every and all attempts to silence us.”

Harry Roque, the president’s spokesman, denied that Duterte’s administration was trying to rein in the free press.

“The issue at hand is the compliance of 100 percent Filipino ownership and management of mass media,” Roque said. “It is not about infringement on the freedom of the press.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission, in a decision made last week but just published on Monday, ruled that Rappler Holdings was guilty of having foreign ownership and thus, violating the constitution.

Rappler acknowledged that it has two foreign investors but said the investors hold no stock in the media company and so have zero influence over Rappler’s editorial content. Rappler vowed to challenge the ruling in court, and also appealed to the public for support.

“What this means for you, and for us, is that the commission is ordering us to close shop, to cease telling you stories, to stop speaking truth to power,” Rappler said in a statement.

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The time-frame of a court appeal was not immediately clear but Rappler vowed to continue publishing as before.

“We will continue to hold power accountable and we will continue to tell the truth,” Chay Hofilena, Rappler’s acting managing editor, told reporters.

“This has been a continuing wave of harassment … Now it’s out there in the open, we know how to deal with it.”

Amnesty International (AI) was among those who slammed the government decision, calling it “a blatant attack on press freedom,” and added that Rappler had been “fearless in holding those in power to account.”

“This is a politically motivated decision, pure and simple, and just the latest attempt to go after anyone who dares to criticize the government,” said James Gomez, AI’s director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “The Philippines government should focus on ending and investigating violations, mostly against poor communities, in the ‘war on drugs,’ not trying to silence the messenger.”

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Duterte has previously attacked other leading news organizations in the Philippines, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a leading newspaper, and ABS-CBN TV broadcaster. Both have been critical of Duterte, particularly his war on drugs that has killed nearly 4,000 people.

“I’m not threatening them but someday their karma will catch up with them,”¬†Duterte said, and added, “They’re shameless, those sons of whore journalists.”

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bik/kms (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)