Groups protest 'attacks' on press freedom

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 20) — Around 300 people gathered in Quezon City Friday evening to protest what they say are government attacks on press freedom.

Media practitioners, veteran journalists, members of the academe and labor groups held a rally at the Boy Scouts Circle on Timog Ave., near the headquarters of two of the country's largest media companies.

The protest was held after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked online news agency Rappler's business registration in a Jan. 11 decision over an alleged breach of the constitutional ban on foreign ownership in mass media.

Read: SEC cancels Rappler's license to do business

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa said at the rally they will continue to do their jobs.

"We're gonna hold the line," she said. "We're gonna answer the charges. We have nothing to be afraid of. We condemn this action as an attempt to turn journalism into a crime."

'Worse than Marcos'

Those who joined the protest said they came to defend Rappler and uphold press freedom.

"Rappler right now is being used as an example if the media would continue its critical reportage of the Duterte administration," said U.P. journalism professor Danilo Arao. "In other words, it sends a chilling effect and strengthens the culture of impunity."

Duterte has frequently singled out mainstream media groups critical of his administration.

The President on Tuesday threatened to file a plunder case against the Prieto family, owners of broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer, for allegedly failing to pay billions of pesos in taxes.

Related: Sociologist: Duterte's media criticism has grave implications on news practice

"Nagpapakalinis kayo Inquirer eh, 'yun pala mga magnanakaw kayo," he said.

[Translation: You people in the Inquirer portray yourself as clean, but you're actually crooks]

"One of these days, I'll file a plunder case," Duterte added. "You will go to jail without a bail."

Meanwhile, the President has criticized ABS-CBN for its alleged biased coverage and for not running his ads during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Arao said the President's criticism is reminiscent of the martial law era, when then strongman Ferdinand Marcos ordered the shutdown of media outlets that were critical of his regime.

"The Duterte administration is being creative in terms of harassing and intimidating the media, but there is also the brutality, the bullying and the crassness," he said. "Right now, he might even end up worse than Marcos."

Move toward dictatorship

Other groups in the rally said the action against Rappler was part of Duterte's move for an "increasingly dictatorial government."

"Sinasanay na ang mamamayan sa kalakaran ng karahasan at panunupil [The masses are being trained in the ways of violence and silencing of dissent]," said Gloria Arellano, chair of informal settler group Kadamay, in a Friday statement.

"Malacañang would love nothing more than to discredit actual journalism by flooding the public with fake news," she added.

Meanwhile, Sen. Leila de Lima, one of Duterte's fiercest critics, called on the public to unite and fight back against Duterte's "attacks" on freedom of speech.

"Wala na talagang tatalo sa kapal ng mukha ni Duterte at ng kanyang rehimen," she said. "Huwag magwalang kibo o magkibit-balikat lang sa hayagang kasinungalingan, kayabangan, at pag-abuso sa kapangyarihan ng rehimeng Duterte. Dahil kung ngayon, Rappler, malamang bukas, ikaw na."

[Translation: Nothing will beat the shamelessness of Duterte and his regime. Let us not brush aside the lies, the boastfulness and the abuses of the Duterte regime. If it's Rappler today, it might be you tomorrow.]

The Rappler issue

The SEC said Rappler had engaged in fraud and circumvented foreign ownership rules by failing to disclose over $1 million (around ₱50 million) in investment by U.S.-based Omidyar Network through what is called Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs).

A PDR is a financial instrument that foreign entities can buy into for financial returns in a local company, without taking in equity or ownership.

The PDRs issued to Omidyar Network — and before that, to others issued to North Base Media, also a foreign company — skipped the SEC's review based on rules exempting from scrutiny transactions involving 19 or fewer investors.

In an ambush interview with reporters late Thursday, SEC Chairperson Teresita Herbosa said this setup effectively limited the offer to foreigners, compared to PDRs issued by other broadcasting companies that were sold to the public.

Read: SEC chair: We won't go after other media firms with depositary receipts

The SEC decision stated that Rappler virtually allowed Omidyar Network to have influence in its corporate affairs by making sure in the PDR document that the interests of Omidyar Network will be protected from any changes in company policies.

Rappler, however, maintains the provisions are standard and Omidyar does not exercise control over the news company and its operations.

"The questioned provision in the Philippine Depositary Receipt issued by Rappler Holdings, Inc. to Omidyar Network does not give it ownership or management which is what is prohibited by the Constitution for media," Rappler lawyer Francis Lim said in a statement to CNN Philippines on Friday.

Rappler has until Jan. 27 to appeal the decision. It will be allowed to operate pending an appeal, unless the court dismisses the news agency's petition and upholds the SEC decision.

Politics behind ruling?

Ressa said on Tuesday that Malacañang was involved in the SEC decision as Rappler has been highly critical of the Duterte administration.

Read: Rappler sees Malacañang hand in license revocation

President Rodrigo Duterte denied the allegation, and told Rappler it was funded by foreigners.

Read: Duterte: I had nothing to do with SEC's ruling on Rappler

SEC's Herbosa said there was no politics in their decision, and even challenged Rappler to prove this allegation.

Read: SEC chair to critics: Prove politics behind decision to revoke Rappler's license