The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has upheld an earlier decision ordering the closure of Rappler, Inc., which was founded by veteran journalist Maria A. Ressa.
In a statement on Wednesday, the regulatory agency confirmed that it issued an order on June 28 “affirming the revocation” of the certificates of incorporation of Rappler and its parent organization, Rappler Holdings Corp. (RHC), for supposedly violating the restrictions on foreign ownership in mass media.
Ms. Ressa first announced the closure order in a media conference in Hawaii.
The overseer of the Philippine corporate sector said the latest order “merely puts in effect its earlier decision and those of the Court of Appeals.”
“The contentions raised by Rappler and RHC have been squarely and adequately addressed by the SEC and the CA in their respective decisions, resolutions and orders, including the latest issuance from the Commission.”
The SEC first decided to revoke Rappler’s registration in January 2018. However, the news outfit has continued its operations despite the state move, which domestic and international groups consider as a form of harassment.
The newsroom’s parent firm “intentionally created an elaborate scheme” to cover an investment from foreign source Omidyar Network, the SEC alleged at the time. The organization is a “mass media entity that sold control to foreigners,” it as-serted.
The Philippine constitution does not allow foreign ownership in mass media and several attempts of pro-market liberal and conservative legislators to change the rule have failed.
In its latest decision, SEC asserted that Rappler violated the Constitution when it granted Omidyar, an investment vehicle created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, control through Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs).
“We were notified by our lawyers of this ruling that effectively confirmed the shutdown of Rappler,” the media outfit said in a statement.
Rappler said it will appeal the decision, “especially since the proceedings were highly irregular.”
Its legal counsel Francis Lim expressed confidence that the media network will “prevail” in the legal arena.
Rappler stands firm that the issuance of PDRs, which are financial instruments used by foreign investors to invest passively in a Philippine firm, does not equate to ownership or equity interest in the news company and its parent organiza-tion, Mr. Lim told a virtual news conference.
“There is a very big difference between depositary receipts and shares of stocks. That’s one area of contention.”
Mr. Lim said Rappler has 15 days to file a petition for review before the appeals court.
SEC cannot implement the order against the outfit “while we appeal,” he added.
Media groups and members of Philippine civil society consider the order as an attack on the free press.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the Philippines’ oldest media group, noted that the order to shut Rappler down “comes on the heels” of a move by the Philippine telecommunications regulator to block al-ternative news sites that have been critical of the government.
“It contributes more uncertainty to the media landscape in the Philippines,” it said in a statement.
The latest SEC order came after President Rodrigo R. Duterte on Monday night admitted in a public event that he had used presidential powers against ABS-CBN Corp., the country’s largest media network.
ABS-CBN, which survived the Martial Law regime of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, was forced off air in May 2020 after Mr. Duterte’s allies in Congress denied its franchise renewal bid.
The late dictator’s son Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., who is set to take oath as the 17th Philippine president on June 30, has said he would let Congress decide on the fate of ABS-CBN’s franchise.
Rappler, whose founder won a Nobel Peace Prize for supposedly defending press freedom under the Duterte administration, has published stories critical of the Marcoses.
Danilo A. Arao, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines, said the SEC order would likely create a climate of self-censorship and would push outfits to toe the Marcos government’s line.
“Various news media organizations have toned down their reportage from time to time even if we should give credit to some brave journalists in the dominant media who still hold the line and sharpen the line,” he said in a Messenger chat.
“While we should constructively criticize many media owners and some journalists for compromising, we should also understand where they are coming from,” he added. “The fault lies directly with the powers that be for cre-ating an atmosphere that is inherently repressive.”
Mr. Arao said mainstream media outfits are inherently prone to internal and external pressures coming from owners, advertisers and other interest groups.
The academic hopes that mainstream outfits would still “defend press freedom” by observing the highest normative standards.”
Media freedom is being considered by investors in their investment decisions, according to economists who value international norms.
“Press freedom is an indicator of stability, lower asymmetric information, and democratic systems are functioning,” John Paolo R. Rivera, an economist at the Asian Institute of Management, said in a Viber message.
“It means that info is flowing well,” he said. “It can be a metric of a good working environment for people and investments in a country.”