MANILA -- The Philippine securities regulator has shut down online news website Rappler for what it claimed to be a breach of foreign ownership laws, but the portal called the move "pure and simple harassment."
The Securities and Exchange Commission, in a decision made on Jan. 11 but only revealed on Monday, ruled that Rappler was "liable for violating the constitutional and statutory foreign equity restrictions in mass media." It accused the news portal of receiving funding from a foreign entity. According to the country's constitution, media companies must be wholly owned by Filipinos.
The case was initiated by the Office of the Solicitor General, or the government lawyer, which asked the SEC in December 2016 to investigate Rappler's issuance of Philippine Depository Receipts to Omidyar Network Fund, which was set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Rappler has been a thorn in the side of President Rodrigo Duterte due to its reports critical of his administration.
Rappler said in a statement on its website that it would challenge the decision through every legal means available to it. "The SEC's kill order revoking Rappler's license to operate is the first of its kind in history -- both for the commission and for Philippine media," the company said.
Rappler has rapidly gained a following after it launched in 2012 by former CNN Jakarta bureau chief and media executive Maria Ressa. It has received investments from North Base Media, which is owned by American journalists. Rappler says its foreign backers do not have a say in its day-to-day operations and that local authorities have up-to-date information about its shareholdings.
Chronicling Duterte's deadly war on drugs and other controversies around the president, Rappler had raised his ire. During his state of the nation address in July, Duterte slammed media organizations critical of him, pointing to Rappler and the country's largest broadcaster ABS-CBN as culprits. "Try to pierce the identity and you will end up American ownership," Duterte said in his address, referring to Rappler.
Prior to that in April, Duterte said he would block the renewal of the congressional franchise of ABS-CBN, which expires in 2020. Also last year, the Prieto family, owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, announced the sale of the leading newspaper to tycoon Ramon Ang after Duterte threatened to target other businesses of the owners. The Inquirer, too, has been critical of Duterte.
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines has expressed alarm over the SEC decision on Rappler. "The decision, which is tantamount to killing the online news site, sends a chilling effect to media organizations in the country," it said.
Rappler's case is the latest sign of deteriorating press freedom in Southeast Asia. Two Reuters correspondents in Yangon were arrested by the police in December "for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces," according to Reuters.
The Cambodia Daily, an independent news media, was forced to fold in September after it received closure and legal threats over a disputed tax case.