MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine journalists planned to hold a rally on Friday in support of media freedom after the arrest of an award-winning head of a news website sparked condemnation of the government.
Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, who is free on bail, is charged with cyber libel in the latest case against the website filed by agencies of the government, which denies stifling the press.
Ressa and associates started Rappler (www.rappler.com) on Facebook in 2011 and it became a news website in 2012. “Rappler” comes from combining “rap” and “ripple”, meaning to discuss and to make a wave. It covers everything from business to politics.
Parent firm Rappler Holdings has four major shareholders with combined stakes of nearly 91 percent. They include Ressa (23.8 percent), media firm Dolphin Fire Group (31 percent), business incubator Hatchd Group (17.9 percent) and angel investor Benjamin So (17.9 percent).
Rappler is funded by advertising, has a premium membership and has engaged in crowdfunding.
The administration says it supports freedom of the media, but must enforce the law. Critics say the government appears to be singling out Rappler.
Its journalists are known for investigative reports, scrutinizing government and fact-checking people in power, especially President Rodrigo Duterte, whose public statements often contain inaccuracies and contradictions. Duterte has called Rappler a “fake news outlet”.
Rappler’s reporting on alleged irregularities and conflicts of interest has irked government members and Duterte’s inner circle. It is banned from attending presidential events.
Rappler has been fighting at least three legal and regulatory challenges in the past year, which allege ownership violations, cyber libel and failure to report gains of nearly $3 million in its 2015 tax returns. It denies wrongdoing.
It operates pending a review after its license was revoked for violating rules against foreigners owning stakes in media.
Rappler had argued Omidyar Network, the philanthropic arm of EBay founder Pierre Omidyar, was a silent investor. Omidyar cut ties to remove what it said was an “artificial barrier” being used against Rappler.
Rappler also faces a libel case over a 2012 story that the justice ministry says broke a cyber crime law because the story was updated in 2014 after the law took effect.
There are no similar cases against other media, but Duterte and his office have publicly scolded the press.
Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s spokesman, has said Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The New York Times and Reuters were “hopelessly and blindly critical of the Duterte administration”.
Duterte says he has no problem with journalists, but he has threatened the broadcast license of media group ABS-CBN, accused a newspaper owner of dodging taxes, and blasted columnists who write on sensitive issues such as his health.
Journalists say they face online hate and threats from Duterte’s supporters, with patterns of trolling and language that indicate a degree of organization. Rappler says the government uses the internet as a weapon, which it denies.
Many threats originate from Facebook postings by pro-Duterte bloggers who say the mainstream media is biased. Some bloggers have ties to the administration or hold government posts. Duterte’s office has said it respects free speech and is not responsible for the online conduct of private citizens.
Reporting by Martin Petty and Neil Jerome Morales; editing by Darren Schuettler