Manila —Journalists and media organizations were some of the first to be arrested, silenced and closed down by dictator Ferdinand Marcos immediately after he declared martial law in the Philippines in 1972 and held on to power with an oppressive regime for 20 years.
Now more than 45 years later on Jan. 15, when news that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ruled that social news media network Rappler has violated constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership of media entities, revoked its operating license and recommended that it be shut down, it was martial law all over again. It would be the first time a news organization was ordered closed by the government since Marcos' martial law in 1972.
President Rodrigo Duterte's resemblance to the Marcosian style of intimidation is not new to Filipinos, who witnessed this populist former city mayor spew out invectives toward the media and his critics once he came to power in May 2016 when he also enabled the police and death squads to kill thousands of mostly poor Filipinos in his brutal war on drugs.
Individual journalists and media organizations blew up in unison on social media to denounce the government move as the latest blow to press freedom.
"This is pure and simple harassment,” Rappler states on its website, “the seeming coup de grace to the relentless and malicious attacks against us since 2016.” Established in 2012, Rappler has provided critical coverage of Duterte's drug war along with other media entities that have also annoyed Duterte.
The SEC claimed that Rappler violated the Philippine Constitution’s restrictions on foreign media ownership when it was founded by the Omidyar Network, an American company owned by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. It called attention to the network's Philippine Depository Receipt (PDR) that enables a company to invest in another but will not have voting rights in the latter's governing body or a say in its operations. Rappler, the recipient company, remains Filipino-owned and managed.
The ruling brought chills on news organizations that have been critical of Duterte's government and that he rebuked for reporting on his drug war and human rights violations. "I'm not threatening them but someday their karma will catch up with them. They're shameless; those sons of whore journalists," he said in his 2017 state of the nation address.
Apart from their critical reporting, media organizations that also issue PDRs became wary of the SEC ruling that beset Rappler, and which may happen to them. Some of the media entities with PDRs are the two largest TV networks ABS-CBN and GMA 7, which have also been attacked by Duterte.
"In an environment deluged by a tidal wave of disinformation, so much of which is supported and sanctioned by and transmitted through government communication systems, the suppression of critical media will insure that Filipinos become cowed, ignorant and fearful, unable to question, debate or argue, consenting to the will of those in power."
In mid-2017, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which is also critical of Duterte's governance, was eyed for purchase and ownership by a business magnate who supported Duterte's election bid.
As Rappler was allowed to continue publishing while under court appeal by its editors, media watchdogs National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) called on Filipino journalists to resist attempts to silence them and sounded the alarm to all Filipinos who believe in democracy to support the media in their role in holding government accountable.
The CMFR said the SEC decision and Rappler's harassment "can only be interpreted as the Duterte regime’s punishment for a news organization doing the fundamental journalistic responsibility of reporting the truth and holding the powerful to account."
"What is at stake is the loss of truth telling, of press freedom and democracy itself," said the CMFR. "In an environment deluged by a tidal wave of disinformation, so much of which is supported and sanctioned by and transmitted through government communication systems, the suppression of critical media will insure that Filipinos become cowed, ignorant and fearful, unable to question, debate or argue, consenting to the will of those in power."
Other critics assailed the Duterte government of oppressing those opposed to the way he governs because while he ordered the shutdown of a media company, he was also open to foreign control and even foreign intrusion on Philippine territories.