The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) notes with grave concern the latest twist in the Philippine government’s unrelenting harassment of online news site Rappler, known for its critical reporting on the Duterte administration and its controversial policies.
This time around it uses tax evasion charges to muzzle the independent media outlet.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted Rappler for alleged tax evasion and failure to file tax returns on the sale of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs), a financial instrument that allows Philippine companies to secure funding from foreign investors.
Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa has denied the charge, saying the media company that she founded has not evaded its tax obligations and that this latest move by the government under President Rodrigo Duterte was an act of intimidation.
The DOJ resolution to indict Rappler was made as early as October 2. Yet the indictment was announced by DOJ only a month later, on November 9, the same day Ressa received the 2018 Knight International Journalism Award in Washington, D.C., the latest recognition accorded to her by the international media community for her unflagging commitment to independent and fearless brand of journalism.
If convicted, Ressa faces up to 10 years in prison and will pay a fine. Tax evasion is a criminal offense in the Philippines.
Rappler’s plight falls into a pattern of rising assaults, including the increasing use of laws, against the media across Southeast Asia. It also calls to mind the multimillion-dollar tax bill slapped against the English-language Cambodia Daily last year, which ultimately, yet not surprisingly, led to its closure after 25 years of operation. Its stories critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his policies riled his administration no end.
The criminal charges leveled against Rappler and which are set to be filed next week are yet another deeply disturbing demonstration of the government’s determined efforts to cow Rappler into silence.
The indictment is also clearly an act of retaliation against the beleaguered media outfit for its investigative reports boldly unmasking the ills plaguing Philippine society under the current dispensation, not least of which is the culture of impunity spawned by Duterte’s ruthless “war on drugs” that has claimed thousands of lives while striking fear in the hearts of many Filipinos.
Rappler’s indictment sends an unmistakable signal to the rest of the Philippine media community that the state, under the strong-arm leadership of Duterte, brooks no dissent or opposition, real or imagined, to its policies and actions.
This latest move by the government comes less than a year since Rappler’s license was temporarily revoked after it was found to have violated the country’s foreign ownership laws by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
President Duterte, who has made no secret of his hatred of the press, previously accused Rappler of peddling “fake news” and banned its reporter from covering Malacañang Palace, the official residence of the country’s chief executive.
Be it in the Philippines or elsewhere in the region, there is no dearth of examples of repressive state efforts to silence the press, or segments of it that do not follow, or dare defy, the official playbook on matters of interest to the public and issues hounding the governments.
Arrests, harassments (online and offline), including the use of state-sponsored cyber trolls, and all manner of intimidation against independent journalists are all manifest signs of a steep decline in media freedom – or what’s left of it – in the region.
Southeast Asian governments’ unrelenting efforts to stifle media scrutiny have set off alarm bells among concerned sectors not only in the region but across the globe. That the Philippines’s otherwise independent press is now under severe threat while its counterparts in the more repressive parts of Southeast Asia are suffering under the weight of varying degrees of suppression and retaliation by the states shows that press freedom in the region has fallen to great depths.
SEAPA calls on the Philippine government to desist from attacking the media for doing its job and undermining press freedom, a hallmark of any democracy.