Since coming to power in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has made many thinly-veiled threats against journalists and hit them with accusations of fake news.

Rappler, a popular online news site in the Philippines, has long been a thorn in the side of Duterte because of its critical reporting of his war on drugs and its investigations into his personal wealth.

The president has repeatedly accused Rappler of being run by Americans, which would be illegal under Filipino law. The site now faces a possible shut down over that allegation, taking the conflict to another level.

"Why are we targeted? Because we're journalists who ask tough questions," says Rappler CEO Maria Ressa. "We've done investigative reports on key facets of this administration, starting with the drug war of President Duterte and the online social media propaganda machine, and how that forms the bedrock of disinformation in this country that really is crippling democracy."

"What we're going to do is to challenge it, take every legal remedy that is possible, take it all the way up to the Supreme Court. And we're also taking it to the people," says Ressa.

Rappler has posted videos explaining its side of the legal story, and has turned to its colleagues in mainstream news outlets, channels like ABS-CBN and GMA, to report on the story.

The outlets might as well cover the story - given the kind of precedent this case could set in the Philippines.

If we allow Rappler to go down, sooner or later everyone's going down. We cannot afford that, and we will not allow that.

Nonoy Espina, journalist & National Union of Journalists board member

"They [the authorities] are trying to test the waters. If nobody will complain or protest about what they're doing with Rappler, they would go ahead with the other news organisations," according to Marichu Lambino, lawyer and assistant professor at the University of the Philippines.

The government's case against Rappler is a financial one. Like many companies in the Philippines, Rappler uses PDRs, Philippine Depositary Receipts, as a vehicle for securing foreign funding. PDRs give investors a slice of the profits if the company makes money, but, unlike shares, no control of that company.

What the Philippines' financial regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), is asserting is that one of Rappler's PDR investors, the Omidyar Group, run by Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar, does have a measure of control over things like the company's makeup or bylaws, thereby breaching Filipino law, which forbids foreign control of media companies.

Harry Roque, spokesperson for President Duterte, says "Rappler is about money. It is not about freedom of the press. What Rappler did was an ingenious fundraising scheme that resulted in control by a foreign entity of a media corporation. Because the business of spreading information is vested with national interest, it should only be owned by Filipinos."

But Rappler is not the only news outlet in the Philippines that uses PDRs as a source of financing. The country's two, biggest TV networks, ABS-CBN and GMA, do too.

Nonoy Espina, journalist and National Union of Journalists (NUJ) board member, says "even the SEC recognizes PDRs. Not as ownership, but as investments. And it's not only Rappler. The other networks have PDRs. One very telling thing, too, is the fact that the solicitor general, who is basically the government's lawyer, asked SEC to act on the complaint against Rappler. It's basically government telling the Securities and Exchange Commission to do something about Rappler, so that alone is a very blatant government intervention."

As poisonous as the rhetoric on the blogosphere can be, the government's case against Rappler, based on those PDRs, seems downright pedantic. 

So does the Rappler case amount to the Duterte government issuing a formal declaration of war against the Filipino media?

"President Duterte, while he says he's not sending armies to close down the news organisations, he's trying to kill them slowly. Constricting their economic funding, their sources of funding. So this is not the worst. The worst is yet to come," says Lambino.

Maria Ressa, CEO, Rappler
Marichu Lambino, lawyer & assistant professor, University of the Philippines
Harry Roque, Filipino president's spokesperson
Nonoy Espina, journalist and NUJ board member

Source: Al Jazeera