A banner on the Rappler social media platforms asks members of the media and the public to stand with the news outlet and defend press freedom. Pic: Rappler Facebook
World-renowned Filipino-American journalist and author Maria Ressa has taken to Twitter to reassure followers that not even this latest arrest will silence her voice - she's still holding the line. This latest incident brings the number of arrests for outspoken co-founder of online news outlet Rappler to three in less than six months. Media organisations and advocacy groups have added their voices to the public outcry over Ressa’s treatment and the political motives for targeting her and her colleagues.
Ressa, who has been outspoken and critical of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and his war on drugs, which is believed to have claimed thousands of lives to date, is currently out on bail.
In this latest incident, she was arrested on 29 March for violating the country’s Anti-Dummy Laws - laws regarding foreign ownership of companies - shortly after her plane touched down at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in the Philippine capital of Manila. Together with her lawyer, she was escorted to the Pasig Regional Trial Court, where she was released hours later after posting bail of US$1 716.
She took to Twitter, quoting US author, journalist and former White House advisor Naomi Wolf about self-censorship.
Later, she tweeted that despite the rights outlined in the country’s constitution that allow her to write or say whatever she wants without fear of consequences, she was facing consequences daily.
Ressa, however, was not the only one from the company that was targeted. Rappler managing editor Glenda Gloria and five members of Rappler's 2016 board were also arrested. They each posted bail of US$1 716 on 27 March, while Ressa was abroad.
In February Ressa spend one night in jail after an arrest on charges of cyber libel. At the time, she was out on bail aftera previous arrest in November 2018 for tax evasion.
According to Rappler, this brings the number of active cases against Ressa to seven since the first charges in January 2018, with 11 cases overall against Rappler, its directors and its staff.
After her release last week, Rappler quoted Ressa as warning the Philippine government that they were sending the wrong message to the rest of the world by arresting her. The online news outlet also released a statement saying that these latest arrests are proof that the pattern of harassment that started with the revoking of Rappler’s licence by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) at the start of 2018 has not stopped.
Journalists and other advocacy groups have slammed the Duterte administration for what they describe as ‘judicial harassment’. For those following the case, there can be no doubt that Ressa and her colleagues are being singled out by the regime they report critically on.
During her weekly radio show, Vice President of the Philippines Leni Robredo said that the government’s treatment of Ressa looked like a ‘warning’ to other journalists critical of the administration. During the broadcast, Robredo, who is also a lawyer and social activist, called on Filipinos to be more concerned about the issue, saying that the nation would not benefit from the silencing of media outlets.
Philippines non-governmental organisation Let's Organise for Democracy (LODI) Arts and Media Alliance said the objective of the arrest was to intimidate, harass and to shame Philippines media.
“We join the nation in assailing the arrest of Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa this morning,” LODI said in a statement.
What is an anti-dummy law?
The Republic of the Philippines, which spans more than 7 600 islands in the Western Pacific Ocean, has laws restricting foreign ownership in certain industries. The Philippines' Anti-Dummy Law, or the Commonwealth Act No. 108, is meant to be “an act to punish acts of evasion of the laws on the nationalisation of certain rights, franchises or privileges”.
In the Philippines, some companies and entities are subject to ownership restrictions - media organisations fall under the list as entities that must be locally owned and cannot be under foreign control. Simplified, the Act describes the “dummy” as a Philippine citizen who acts as a local front for foreign owners of a company, and helps with the evasion of nationalisation laws. While the corporate entity is registered under the local’s name, the real control of the enterprise lies outside the country.
Reporters without Borders adds its voice to growing outcry against the government's 'judicial harassment' of Maria Ressa. Original photo: LeAnne Jazul/Rappler - Design: D. Bastard/RSF
Is the Anti-Dummy Law applicable to Rappler?
If Ressa is to be believed, it doesn’t. She said she was as surprised as the next person when Duterte declared that the online news outlet was “fully owned” by Americans and as such, in violation of the country’s constitution. Later, he stated publicly that “Not only [was] Rappler’s news fake; it being Filipino [was] also fake.”
On 11 January 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued an order revoking Rappler's registration as a news organisation for violating the Anti-Dummy Law. This claim related to Philippine Deposit Receipts (PDR) issued to to Omidyar Networks, a global philanthropic investment firm owned by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
At the time the Philippine Inquirer columnist Raul Palabrica said that the SEC misappreciated the true nature of PDRs as financial instruments used to raise capital by some wholly or partially nationalised companies.
He said that “a PDR gives its holder, in consideration for the payment of a certain price, the right to ‘own’ the stocks of a company and to receive their dividends or interest. In spite of that right, however, title over the stocks remains with the company.”
Rappler has maintained that it has 100% Philippine ownership. Following the SEC order Omidyar Networks released released a statement, reiterating Ressa’s stance that they owned no shares and had no control in either Rappler Holdings Corporation or Rappler Inc.
According to CNN Philipines, the Omidyar Network donated it's PDR to 14 Rappler managers on 28 February 2018 in a move the network said should have completely eliminated the basis of the SEC order.
Rappler took to its own website’s Frequently Asked Questions to try and explain the law and its implication for the company.