Philippines independent news site Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa were formally indicted last week for tax evasion, a move that many consider to be politically motivated and designed to silence independent media in the Philippines.
Rappler has long been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless war on drugs that has shocked audiences around the globe. The death toll from extrajudicial and vigilante killings are rapidly on the rise as the government continues to go after dealers and users alike. Rappler has often contested the official death counts and even initiated a social media campaign #RealNumbersPH to counter what it calls a ‘false narrative’ about the governments war on drugs.
Maria Ressa has been quick and thorough about using Rappler as her platform to point out the disinformation campaign that Duterte and his administration is spreading, carefully correcting discrepancies in their stories and alleging bots being used by Duterte loyalists to paint a more favourable picture of their infamous President.
In an article published in 2016 following the Davao bombing and subsequent media frezy, Ms Ressa pointed that the President has employed a strategy of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ which “uses the strength of the internet and exploits the algorithms that power social media to sow confusion and doubt.” In this instance, she pointed out that an old Rappler report had been manipulated and republished on various news sites to give the impression that the bomber has been apprehended swiftly – even though the report was dated and on a different issue.
She emphasised that Duterte has weaponised the internet via bots and fake accounts to silence the President’s critic by sheer volume of ‘alternative reality’ stories and have started a propaganda war. She compared this strategy with that of China where nearly 450 million social media comments are faked each year.
From orchestrating an elaborate social media campaign to calling for a boycott of media, manipulating alogrithms on micro-blogging sites to their advantage and deploying an army of fake social media accounts to carry out personal and vicious attacks on Duterte’s critics, Ms Ressa has blown the top off Duterte’s game plan for twisting facts to secure support for himself while discrediting any and all independent media.
Duterte, vexed by Rappler's criticisms, launched an attack on Rappler and Ressa, claiming that the site produces only fake news and isn't even owned by Filipino - a fact that Ressa says is entirely unfounded and they have the documents to prove it. This was followed by an investigation by the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) into Rappler's ownership back in 2016.
In January of 2018, Rappler’s registration was temporarily revoked by the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on the claim that it has violated the country’s constitution over foreign ownership rule. They claimed that Rappler failed to declare $3 million in tax returns in 2015 from an investment by the Omidyar Network, a fund created by Pierre Omidyar, eBay founder and philanthropist.
"I've long run out of synonyms for the word 'ridiculous.' The basis of this case is that Rappler is classified as a dealer in securities. I am definitely not a stockbroker," Ms Ressa told CNN after news of the charges broke.
On 29th Nov, formal accusations were brought against Rappler and its CEO. This comes with a potential 10-year prison sentence under the Philippines tax law. When Ms Ressa arrived in Manila on Sunday 2nd Dec, a warrant of arrest had already been issued. She told CNN that she was “ready to post bail and do what our lawyers will advise”.
Ms Ressa’s counsellor, Francis Lim, said that Maria would surrender herself voluntarily to court and request bail which is a constitutionally guaranteed right under the Philippines legal system.
The move was slammed by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as a direct assault on the freedom of press. Amnesty International added that it was an ‘alarming attempt to silence independence journalism’.
Shawn Crispin, CPJ Southeast Asia representative, said the charges were a "blatant form of legal harassment and underline President Rodrigo Duterte's desperate attempt to stifle its critical reporting on his government."
Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the case sent "a chilling message to journalists and human rights activists (in the Philippines) that they will be targeted for exposing his murderous campaign."
In the past President Duterte had personally barred Ressa and Rappler reporter Pia Ranada from his official residence, Malacanang Palace over their critical coverage of his administration. However, Duterte’s office has denied any involvement in these legal actions.