Rappler, a new media organization critical of the Philippines government, faces closure

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Rappler, a high-profile new media news organization in the Philippines, is facing closure after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked its registration for an alleged breach of the country’s constitution.

Rappler was started in 2012 by Filipino journalist Maria Ressa and it is a global case study for media in the 21st century with a digital-first platform and focus on independent reporting. The site ranks as the Philippines’ tenth most popular website, according to Alexa, and it has over 3.5 million Facebook fans. Its articles cover domestic and international news but has expanded into Indonesia.

Rappler has also grown to become one of the most critical voices of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s government. Elected into office in June 2016, Duterte’s policies have included a controversial war on drugs that has led to the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos to date. He is known overseas for calling then-U.S. President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” and has joked that soldiers are free to rape women among other things.

The SEC’s issue centers around the ownership of Rappler. The company has taken investment from Omidyar Network, the philanthropic fund from former eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and North America-based media fund North Bridge Media, which counts Quora and Disqus among its portfolio.

Philippines law forbids any overseas ownership of media companies, but Rappler claims its investors used a Philippine Depositary Receipt (PDR) to invest. PDRs don’t provide voting equity or board membership, making them a vehicle for media investments in the country. National broadcaster ABS-CBN is among others to have used them.

The SEC, however, has voided the Omidyar Network’s PDR and thus revoked Rappler’s Certificate of Incorporation. That essentially amounts to a request to close the business.

The SEC has been investigating Rappler’s ownership structure since July 2017 when it created a committee to look into the issue. Duterte himself said he would investigate the media firm after he said it was “fully owned by Americans.”

That’s led to a belief that there’s a political agenda behind this investigation, particularly given past history before the two. The President’s comments are just one of a series of flash points between Rappler and the government which have seen the media organization and its staff attacked by supporters of the President and his government, as detailed in a recent Bloomberg story.

Rappler confirmed that it will appeal the decision and continue to operate as usual.

“We intend to not only contest this through all legal processes available to us, but also to fight for our freedom to do journalism and for your right to be heard through an independent platform like Rappler,” Rappler wrote in response to news of the SEC’s decision.

“We’ve been through a lot together, through good and bad – sharing stories, building communities, inspiring hope, uncovering wrongdoing, battling trolls, exposing the fake. We will continue bringing you the news, holding the powerful to account for their actions and decisions, calling attention to government lapses that further disempower the disadvantaged,” it added.

The publication was supported by media groups and politicians in the Philippines.

“SEC’s decision revoking Rappler’s registration is an authoritarian measure and an attack against press freedom. This is a confirmation that the Duterte government is intolerant of a critical institution, especially from the media sector,” Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao said in a statement reported by The Inquirer.

“The decision, which is tantamount to killing the online news site, sends a chilling effect to media organizations in the country,” the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines wrote in a statement.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it was “outraged” by the decision.

It cited Duterte’s comments against Rappler last year which are “but one of many threats [he] has made against media critical of him and his governance.”

Rappler is raising five million PHP (around $100,000) to help with its legal case at this page here. There are three months and 30 days more to run but it has already hit 25 percent of that target.

Featured Image: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images/Getty Images (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)