News site Rappler and staff face string of charges

MANILA: When Filipino journalist Pia Ranada fell into a ditch and injured her leg on election day, May 9, 2016, the presidential candidate she was reporting on drove her to hospital and sat with her as she was treated. Less than two years later, that same man, by then in the midst of a bloody crackdown on drugs in which around 5,000 suspects were killed by police, attacked her during a national broadcast. "You are a Filipino who was allowed to abuse our country … in the name of the holy grail of press freedom," President Rodrigo Duterte said in a speech in January 2018, addressing Ranada directly. "You are not only throwing toilet paper, you are throwing shit at us."

Rappler reporter Pia Ranada interviews Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, the eldest daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, after a campaign sortie in Calamba City, Laguna, Philippines, March 9, 2019. REUTERS

It was an explosive moment during a period of simmering tension between Ranada's news outlet, Rappler, and Duterte's administration, part of a chain of events that has drawn global concern for one of Southeast Asia's few remaining corners of relatively free and open press. Now facing multiple criminal charges against the site and its staff - the latest of which led to the arrest of its chief Maria Ressa on Friday - Rappler's management say they will not bow to what they see as government intimidation.

Duterte's office says it has no grudge against Rappler and the government is not behind any of the cases against the news site and its staff. Reuters also has no evidence that Duterte was directly involved. Instead, interviews with Philippine officials and journalists show that close allies of Duterte coordinated the investigations against Rappler, and that Duterte was deeply angered by some of its reporting. A spokesman for Duterte's office said accusations his government was abusing or harassing Rappler were "unreasonable".

Making waves

Rappler Executive Editor Ressa, who previously held senior positions at US broadcaster CNN, started Rappler with some associates on Facebook in 2011, and it became a news website in 2012. The name comes from combining "rap" and "ripple", meaning to discuss and to make a wave. Ressa told Reuters she had found Duterte "utterly refreshing" when she interviewed him in the run-up to the 2016 election. Ressa added that her site's extensive coverage of Duterte's campaign allowed the septuagenarian to tap into a young, social media-savvy voter base that helped a provincial city mayor secure an unlikely triumph over challengers from Manila's political establishment.

Yet Duterte's victory was also founded on a pledge to eliminate crime and drugs, and allegations the crackdown that ensued involved widespread extrajudicial executions by police quickly became a focus of Rappler's and other media outlets' reporting on his presidency. Ressa said she believes their hard-hitting drug war reports, as well as stories accusing the administration of creating a social media "ecosystem" where bloggers and internet trolls attack Duterte's opponents, quickly put them on a collision course with the president.

Facebook this week said it had removed an online network in the Philippines for "coordinated inauthentic behavior", and linked it to a businessman who has previously said he helped manage the president's social media election campaign in 2016. The tide turned on Rappler in late 2016, when the government's top lawyer, Solicitor-General Jose Calida, requested the Philippines' Securities and Exchange Commission investigate the firm over alleged ownership violations. Calida is seen as a close ally of Duterte and helped manage his election campaign before being appointed solicitor-general in June 2016.

But a source close to Duterte, who wished to remain anonymous, said Calida was not acting under orders from the president. "Duterte doesn't really care about stories about the war on drugs," the source recounted. "It was really Calida trying to gain brownie points." A spokesman for Calida's office said via email "it is a serious misconception" he was focused on the president's opponents. The Office of the Solicitor-General declined to comment on Rappler citing ongoing legal proceedings.

Ressa said "attacks" by the government which started in 2016 led to board members leaving, a 45 percent drop in advertising revenue and a hefty voluntary pay cut for key management. She added that this "pressure cooker" environment forced a change in Rappler's business model and that its finances have since improved. Rappler now operates pending a review after its licence was revoked for violating rules against foreigners owning stakes in media.

Too close

Throughout 2017, Duterte stepped up criticism of certain press outlets, singling out Rappler as "fake news" and "foreign-owned" in public speeches. But Ranada - the Rappler reporter assigned to cover the president - said on a personal level their relationship was at a "very good point" during the same period. Indeed, Duterte and Ranada spent so much time together at a media Christmas party at the presidential palace in December 2017, her peers started to worry she was getting exclusive material, journalists and officials present said.

That was just weeks before Duterte's expletive-laden rant about Ranada. What prompted that outburst, and changed the nature of Duterte's relationship with Rappler forever, according to the source close to the president, was a story about his closest aide, Christopher Go. The article alleged Go had "intervened" in a military procurement deal by asking the navy to look at a proposal by a South Korean firm. Go denied wrongdoing.

The source said Duterte "lost it" over that story because "it was too close to him, it was almost alleging that he was corrupt". In response to Reuters' questions, a spokesman for Duterte's office, Martin Andanar, said: "We do not have any personal issues with any reporter… However, any form of deliberate attempt to misinform the public is an attack to the efforts of the administration to deliver what is due to the Filipino people."

Go declined to comment on the procurement deal, saying it had been investigated by the Philippine Senate and was "case closed". He told Reuters he thought Rappler was "very biased against me and the president". A day after Duterte's verbal attack, the justice minister at the time, Vitaliano Aguirre - a staunch loyalist and former university classmate of the president - issued a blanket order to the Philippines' equivalent of the FBI, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), to probe Rappler "over possible violation of the constitution and laws".

Rappler said the order, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters, was a "fishing expedition". Aguirre, who resigned in April 2018, denied this. Asked about his experience of Rappler during his time in office, Aguirre said in a text message: "My experience with RAPPLER?…it is engaged in bias reporting against the Duterte administration…It would slant news reports every chance it gets… and it is not above reporting fake news."

In the weeks that followed, a years-old libel case was resurrected against Rappler, a tax evasion probe was launched and both Ranada and Ressa were banned from the palace at the president's order. Andanar, from Duterte's office, said the cases against Ressa and Rappler were "bereft of any government participation" and that it was "unreasonable to conclude that the administration is in any form harassing them or abusing its power".

Dangerous message

Ressa was among a group of journalists named Time Magazine's Person of the Year in December 2018 for "defending free expression and the pursuit of truth and facts". Last month, she was served an arrest warrant live on television at her office over a libel case and had to spend a night at NBI's headquarters before she was released on bail. Ressa was arrested again on Friday, minutes after arriving at Manila airport from an overseas trip, on charges she and other Rappler executives violated foreign ownership rules.

"The Philippines has for a long time been a standard bearer in the region for press freedom," said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "If Duterte is able to get away with effectively silencing what has been one of his most prominent and credible media critics, that could send a message to the wider region that this is an attack you can get away with." Despite all the legal cases, verbal and online attacks, and financial troubles, Ressa remains defiant. "This is largely intimidation and this is part of the reason we are refusing to be intimidated," said Ressa. "We will fight and I do think we can win." - Reuters