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IN DEFENSE OF ‘INDEPENDENT VOICES’

UN experts hit gov’t on Rappler closure; fake news, Roque replies

United Nation Special Rapporteur Dr. Agnes Callamard. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO / NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

UN human rights experts on Thursday scored government moves to shut down the news website Rappler, and called on the administration to instead protect independent media.

“We are gravely concerned that the government is moving to revoke Rappler’s license,” three UN human rights experts said in a joint statement.  “We are especially concerned that this move against Rappler comes at a time of rising rhetoric against independent voices in the country.”

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“We urge the government to return to its path of protection and promotion of independent media, especially those covering issues in the public interest,” read the statement by UN experts Agnes Callamard, David Kaye and Michel Frost, special rapporteurs on extrajudicial executions, on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and on the situation of human rights defenders, respectively.

Bloody war on drugs

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Callamard had previously tangled with President Duterte and his allies over her criticism of the government’s bloody crackdown on illegal drugs.

But presidential spokesperson Harry Roque brushed off the UN experts’ statement and described their claim as “fake news.”

He would give them credence only “if they (could) show which outfit (had) been shut down, who (had) been prohibited to report, when there was either censorship or prior restraint,” the official added.

“(The) allegation that it’s about press freedom is fake news,” Roque said, adding that the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) decision to revoke Rappler’s registration was made by an agency staffed mostly with appointees of former President Benigno Aquino III.

The SEC on Jan. 11 ordered the revocation of Rappler’s registration for having foreign ownership, in contravention of the 1987 Constitution.

Robust public debate

The order stemmed from the Philippine depositary receipts (PDRs) that Rappler Holdings issued to Omidyar Network Fund LLC, an offshore fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife. A provision in the PDRs issued to Omidyar Network allowed it to veto some of Rappler’s corporate actions.

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What Rappler did in issuing PDRs, Roque said, “was a money-making scheme” that the SEC found to have violated the Constitution.

The SEC decision on Rappler’s case has been widely condemned by local and international media groups and human rights advocates, with the UN experts questioning the penalty imposed on the news site.

“The SEC’s move is at odds with its past approach to foreign support of local or national media, given that philanthropic contributions do not amount to foreign ownership,” they said. “It has rejected the previously accepted format of contributions which media companies use to raise foreign funding.”

The UN experts added: “As a matter of human rights law, there is no basis to block (Rappler) from operating. Rappler and other independent outlets need particular protection because of the essential role they play in ensuring robust public debate,” they added.

Threats of harm

They also took note of Mr. Duterte and his allies’ criticism of Rappler, including threats of physical harm to its staff.

“Rappler’s work rests on its own freedom to impart information and, more importantly, its vast readership to have access to its public interest reporting,” the special rapporteurs said.

President Duterte has denied having any hand in Rappler’s legal woes, while Malacañang has disputed allegations that the matter was a press freedom issue.   —WITH A REPORT FROM REUTERS

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TAGS: Agnes Callamard, David Kaye, Global Nation, Media, Michel Frost, Philippine news updates, Press Freedom, Rappler
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