MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has drawn condemnation from international human rights groups by turning up the pressure on media organizations critical of his administration ahead of midterm elections next year.
The Department of Justice on Friday said it had indicted news site Rappler and its founder and executive editor Maria Ressa on charges of tax evasion.
The government's move has sparked an international outcry. In a statement over the weekend, Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said the indictment of Rappler was a "clear, desperate attempt by the administration of Duterte to shut down one of the critical voices in Philippine journalism." Rappler has been in the crosshairs of the administration since 2016 because of its unrelenting coverage of corruption and malfeasance in government, particularly the drug war, Adams said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York based nonprofit, also condemned the legal charges on Sunday, calling them "a direct assault on press freedom in the Philippines," the Guardian reported.
The case stems from the issuance of Philippine Depositary Receipts to the Omidyar Network Fund, which was set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Rappler "gained close to 162.5 million pesos ($3.05 million) from the transaction, which it failed to declare in its tax return," the department said in a statement.
"We maintain that this is a clear form of continuing intimidation and harassment against us, and an attempt to silence journalists," Rappler said in a statement on Friday.
The sale of the certificates to Omidyar several years ago was also used by the Securities and Exchange Commission as grounds for revoking Rappler's corporate certification early this year.
The corporate regulator said the transaction violated the Philippine constitution, which bars foreign ownership of mass media companies. Rappler, which has continued to operate, dismissed the move at that time as "pure and simple harassment."
On Thursday, Duterte also revived his threats on ABS-CBN, the country's largest broadcaster, which, like Rappler, has extensively documented the bloody war on drugs, in which thousands of suspects have died.
ABS-CBN's 25-year operating license will expire in 2020 and renewal requires congressional approval. "Your franchise will end," said Duterte, whose PDP-Laban party and allies control congress, in a speech in Boracay.
Shares of ABS-CBN have sunk since Duterte repeated the threats, falling 0.50% in Monday morning trading.
The moves by the Duterte administration come as the country prepares for the midterm elections in May, in which congressional and senate seats will be up for grabs.
Advocates say press freedom is under threat Southeast Asia. In September, a court in Myanmar ruled that two Reuters correspondents were guilty of violating a law on state secrets while reporting on the plight of Rohingya refugees. Last year, The Cambodia Daily, an independent media outlet, was forced out of business after it received closure and legal threats over a tax dispute.