Wed, Apr 03, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The journalists taking the rap in Rodrigo Duterte’s latest war

The news Web site Rappler and some of its staff are facing a string of charges, but the Philippine president’s office denies the government is behind the cases, despite his vehement attacks on it and them

By John Geddie and Martin Petty  /  Reuters, MANILA

Illustration: Mountain People

When Philippine journalist Pia Ranada fell into a ditch and injured her leg on election day, May 9, 2016, the presidential candidate she was reporting on drove her to hospital and sat with her as she was treated.

Less than two years later, that same man, by then in the midst of a bloody crackdown on drugs in which about 5,000 suspects were killed by police, attacked her during a national broadcast.

“You are a Filipino who was allowed to abuse our country ... in the name of the holy grail of press freedom,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in a speech in January last year, addressing Ranada directly. “You are not only throwing toilet paper, you are throwing shit at us.”

It was an explosive moment during a period of simmering tension between Ranada’s news outlet, Rappler, and Duterte’s administration, part of a chain of events that has drawn global concern for one of Southeast Asia’s few remaining corners of relatively free and open press.

Now facing multiple criminal charges against the site and its staff — the latest of which led to the arrest once again of its chief executive Maria Ressa on Friday — Rappler’s management say they will not bow to what they see as government intimidation.

Duterte’s office says it has no grudge against Rappler and the government is not behind any of the cases against the news site and its staff.

Reuters also has no evidence that Duterte was directly involved.

Instead, interviews with Philippine officials and journalists show that close allies of Duterte coordinated the investigations against Rappler, and that Duterte was deeply angered by some of its reporting.

A spokesman for Duterte’s office said accusations his government was abusing or harassing Rappler were “unreasonable.”

Rappler executive editor Ressa, who previously held senior positions at US broadcaster CNN, started Rappler with some associates on Facebook in 2011, and it became a news Web site in 2012. The name comes from combining “rap” and “ripple,” meaning to discuss and to make a wave.

Ressa said she had found Duterte “utterly refreshing” when she interviewed him in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Ressa added that her site’s extensive coverage of Duterte’s campaign allowed the septuagenarian to tap into a young, social media-savvy voter base that helped a provincial city mayor secure an unlikely triumph over challengers from Manila’s political establishment.

Yet Duterte’s victory was also founded on a pledge to eliminate crime and drugs, and allegations the crackdown that ensued involved widespread extrajudicial executions by police quickly became a focus of Rappler’s and other media outlets’ reporting on his presidency.

Ressa said she believes their hard-hitting drug war reports, as well as stories accusing the administration of creating a social media “ecosystem” where bloggers and Internet trolls attack Duterte’s opponents, quickly put them on a collision course with the president.

Facebook last week said it had removed an online network in the Philippines for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” and linked it to a businessman who has previously said he helped manage the president’s social media election campaign in 2016.

The tide turned on Rappler in late 2016, when the government’s top lawyer, Philippine Solicitor-General Jose Calida, requested the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission investigate the firm over alleged ownership breeches.

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