Duterte throttles online site

It’s June 2017 and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is delivering his State of the Nation address. He was elected on the promise of violent and quick solutions to fix the Philippines’ struggling economy. His speech is fiery and littered with attacks on his critics. Then, half an hour in, he goes off script, attacking the country’s first online-only media organisation, Rappler. “When you start to pierce their identity, it is fully owned by Americans.”

It is illegal for foreigners to own media in the Philippines. His claim is based on investments made in the publication by philanthropic and venture capital firms based outside of the Philippines. 

Six months later, the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler’s licence for alleged foreign ownership. In February last year, the presidency banned Rappler’s presidential reporter from physically covering Duterte. Ten months after that, in November, Rappler and its editor, Maria Ressa, were charged with tax evasion and failure to file tax returns.

On Tuesday, the 100-odd editorial staff will celebrate a year of Rappler still being open after its licence was revoked. They can work because they are challenging the decision.

Rappler’s work, often involving fact-checking the president’s claims and investigating his tacit support for extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers and users, is part of the reason the charges have been brought against the publication, according to Ressa. Human Rights Watch estimates that 12 000 people have died in this “war” on drugs.

Because of its online focus, Rappler is in the middle of an ongoing battle on social media between journalists and people sowing disinformation. Founded in 2012 by journalists who said they were tired of working for traditional media houses where owners interfered in editorial decisions on what to report on, it has become the country’s 11th-most-popular website, according to the internet-ranking company Alexa. Much of this is because of its use of social media. Its name is an online-friendly portmanteau of rap (to discuss) and ripple.

READ MORE: Rappler CEO vows to report on Duterte drug war amid arrest threat

Like Rappler, Duterte was quick to seize on the power of Facebook to bypass traditional media houses. This helped him to cast himself as an outsider who could force change. Polarising comments about rape and murder drove the debate and traffic that makes Facebook so profitable.

The social media platform sent teams to all candidates for the 2016 election, teaching them the best way to use their platform. Duterte’s campaign was continually accused by journalists and civil society organisations of spreading false information.

Duterte went on to win 39% of the vote and the election.

Rappler says this social media machinery has been turned against it. After the publication started looking at the killings of alleged drug dealers, its editor and reporters received rape and death threats.

Rappler keeps a running list of 14-million Facebook accounts that are either hyper-supportive of the president or disseminating false information. An armed guard had to be stationed at its Manila offices and the social media team has had to be sent for counselling.

Duterte has dismissed claims that he is behind any of the vocal attacks on the publication, or behind the investigations and charges that have threatened to close Rappler.

In a 2016 article, “Propaganda war: weaponising the internet”, Ressa wrote that Rappler had talked to people who run fake accounts and websites, and found that a team of three people could earn R1.3-million a month from the advertising that their fake stories attracted because they got so much traffic.

Despite the charges and online onslaught, Rappler has kept doing its journalism. Glenda Gloria, one of its founders and the managing editor, said: “If there’s anything that 2018 has proven, it is that he [Duterte] tried to bring down Rappler and he failed big time.”

Part of the survival has been because of the international attention Rappler’s case has received. Ressa was on the cover of Time as part of its Person of the Year award, given last year to journalists working in difficult conditions.

The United States plays a big role in the Philippines. Duterte and President Donald Trump have said that they enjoy a good relationship (one of the episodes when Rappler was targeted online was after it published leaked transcripts of a phone call between the two).

But the publication has done its own work in lobbying American politicians to be vocal in support of freedom of the press in the Philippines.

The other part of that survival has been a core readership that pays to support Rappler. As a rule of thumb, new publications in the Philippines have taken up to a decade of losses before they become profitable. For Rappler, this took four years.

Gloria said: “We wanted to give independent media a chance. We wanted to show that good journalism is actually good business.”

The attacks on the publication and its credibility have taken a toll, however, and its core readership is swaying. Pia Ranada, Rappler’s presidential correspondent, said: “A lot of hardcore supporters are already swayed.”

READ MORE: From wars to Duterte: Journalist ‘holds the line’

This is an additional concern on top of the reality that her publication could lose court cases and be shut.

But Ranada said the need to keep reporting on the president keeps her going into the office each day.

A late-riser, Duterte tends to hold press conferences and do things late at night, forcing the Rappler newsroom to work all hours. On Tuesday, they will take a moment to stop and celebrate their improbable and hard-fought survival.

Editor targeted

Rappler and other publications have managed to get funding using an investment tool called a Philippine depositary receipt. This loophole allows foreigners to invest money, in return for profit share, but without getting a seat on the board, or a share in the company.

Rappler got money in this way from the venture capital firms Omidyar Network, based in the United States, and North Base Media Ltd, based in the Cayman Islands. But the Securities and Exchange Commission voided the depositary receipt that had been given for Omidyar’s money. It has the power to do this because the receipt is open to different interpretations on how it is used. This automatically revoked Rappler’s certificate of incorporation, with the doors only staying open because it could challenge this decision.

Omidyar has since donated its depositary receipt to Rappler staff.

The November 2018 arrest warrant for Rappler editor Maria Ressa was based on three counts of failure to file tax returns, and one count of tax evasion. Rappler has denied the charges. If she is convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison. — Sipho Kings

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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