Attempt to shut down Rappler news site part of efforts to muzzle free expression

Expression

Press freedom in the Philippines has taken a further blow as the presidential administration’s Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked the license of independent news organisation - Rappler, and ordered its closure. On 11th January 2018, the SEC declared that Rappler had violated constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership of domestic media by accepting funds from the Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Rappler insists that Omidyar Network’s investment does “not indicate ownership”, and is challenging the decision at the Court of Appeals. It will continue to operate as it files the necessary court motions.

Rappler has been a vocal critic of the Duterte regime, especially of its notorious ‘war on drugs’. The SEC's decision seems to be targeting the news outlet for its criticism of the current administration. The Duterte administration has gone after individual media outlets that criticise President Duterte's policies, thus creating an increasingly chilled atmosphere for the country’s independent journalists and media outlets to operate.

In response to the SEC decision, Human Rights Watch stated that:

“If Duterte succeeds in silencing Rappler, it will have a profound chilling effect on Philippine media freedom, encouraging self-censorship by reporters and media outlets fearful of government reprisals for critical reporting at a time when the watchdog role of a free press is more urgently needed than ever”.

Civil society organisations and human rights advocates are also concerned about restrictions to freedom of expression. On 10th December 2017 - International Human Rights Day - activists gathered at a conference on free expression -  FreeXP.con - and adopted a declaration of alarm over the government’s attempts to intimidate the media and clamp down on dissent. They also raised concerns about the legitimisation of hate speech by the government through the appointment of social media personalities known to amplify inflammatory and misleading social media posts. These appointees to positions of power have also been known for their targeted attacks against members of the media and individuals critical of the administration.

Peaceful Assembly

Civil society has organised numerous protests over the last few months on a range of human rights issues. On 1st December 2017, students staged a naked run to protest against President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. On 6th December 2017, rights groups protested in front of the Department of National Defense in Quezon City against the prolongation of Martial Law in the southern province of Mindanao. Rights group Karapatan has documented 29 cases of extrajudicial killings in their community as well as 15 cases of torture, 58 illegal arrests and gunfire incidents and air strikes by security forces impacting an estimated 335,700 people. On 10th December, protesters marked International Human Rights Day with a number of rallies across the country to condemn the worsening human rights situation.

Earlier in November 2017, civil society activists who participated in ASEAN Civil Society Conference at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit took to the streets in Manila to protest a wide range of issues, including extrajudicial killings and human rights violations linked to Duterte's war on drugs, U.S. President Donald Trump's visit to the country, and the environmental impact of fossil fuels. Protesters were blocked by police in riot gear with shields and batons, and faced water cannons, truncheons and ear-piercing sonic alarm. At least 123 protesters were injured from the police use of violence and excessive force to break up the protest.

Association

Attacks against activists and those who stand up to the regime have worsened as the government attempts to silence dissenting voices. On 3rd December 2017, eight indigenous people were killed during a military offensive that the military claimed to be against ''communist rebels". The eight killed were members of TAMASCO, a grassroots organisation formed in 2006 to reclaim the indigenous tribe’s 1,700-hectare ancestral land, which is currently being used to produce coffee. The activists were also opposed to coal mining operations on their ancestral land. 

In a separate incident, on 4th December 2017 Father Marcelito “Tito” Paez, an activist priest well-known for his activism on in issues of human rights and poverty, was shot by unidentified assailants. At the time of writing, no one had been held accountable for these attacks against the activists. 

Expressing deep concerns over the recent killings of activists, In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement and Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates issued a joint statement on 9th December, declaring that:

“President Rodrigo Roa Duterte in many instances has repeatedly threatened to kill human rights defenders who are criticizing his bloody “war on drugs” that already claimed more than 13,000 deaths including innocent civilians and children. By recently declaring the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army as “terrorists” and by ordering the immediate arrest, not only of armed rebels, but also of all members of the "legal fronts" supporting them, he just made an open season for further attack against the human rights defenders”.

Due to pressure from civil society groups around the unlawful killing of thousands of people by police in drug-related operations, President Duterte reduced the police’s role in such operations in October 2017, granting the power to the Drug Enforcement Agency. In November 2017, however, President Duterte said in a national speech that he was considering revising that decision, and on 29th January 2018 police resumed their previously-held role in the war on drugs, raising fears of more extrajudicial killings and violence.