January 25, 2018 / 3:58 PM / 10 months ago

U.N. experts urge Philippines to preserve free media

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. human rights experts called on the Philippines government on Thursday to allow independent news website Rappler to operate, voicing concern at rising rhetoric against voices critical of President Rodrigo Duterte.

FILE PHOTO: A guard opens a door at the office of Rappler in Pasig, Metro Manila, Philippines January 15, 2018. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao/File Photo

The country’s Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler’s license on Jan 11 for ownership violations. Maria Ressa, chief of Rappler (www.rappler.com), met state investigators on Monday to answer what she called a suspicious complaint about a 2012 story.

“We are gravely concerned that the government is moving to revoke Rappler’s license,” three U.N. human rights experts said in a joint statement. “We are especially concerned that this move against Rappler comes at a time of rising rhetoric against independent voices in the country.”

The Philippines authorities deny Rappler is being punished, but say it broke the law in 2015 by granting American investor Omidyar Network the means to exercise control over the news site, or veto powers on company decisions.

Rappler, which continues to operate normally pending an appeal denies it broke the law.

“Rappler’s work rests on its own freedom to impart information, and more importantly its vast readership to have access to its public interest reporting,” the U.N. experts said.

There was no basis under international human rights law to block Rappler from operating, they said: “Rappler and other independent outlets need particular protection because of the essential role they play in ensuring robust public debate.”

Responding to the U.N. experts, Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Rappler was a business operating in breach of the constitution and its journalists had been neither blocked nor censored.

“(The) allegation that it’s about press freedom is fake news,” Roque said in a text message.

“It’s about avarice for money that violates the (constitution) and the laws of the land. Let me know if any of the journalist of Rappler’s have been prevented from reporting, or if they’ve been censored.”

The U.N. statement was issued by David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Michel Forst, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, and Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jon Boyle and Clarence Fernandez

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