CNN  — 

A move by the Philippines Justice Department to charge investigative news site Rappler with tax evasion is being seen as a thinly disguised attempt to stifle press freedom in the Southeast Asian country.

On Friday, the Justice Department said it had “found probable cause” to indict Rappler and its CEO and executive editor, former CNN bureau chief Maria Ressa, on charges of tax evasion.

“We are not at all surprised by the decision, considering how the Duterte administration has been treating Rappler for its independent and fearless reporting,” Rappler said in statement.

Officials said Rappler and Ressa failed to declare about $3 million in 2015 on tax returns from an investment by the Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

The investment was touted by Rappler in November 2015 as a partnership that created “an ‘inclusive media’ platform that blends professional journalism, technology and the wisdom of the crowd.

Maria Ressa speaks to the media as she arrives at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) headquarters in Manila on January 22, 2018.

Rappler has not shied away from critical reporting about Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, closely documenting his so-called “war on drugs,” a widespread crackdown which has been condemned for encouraging thousands of extrajudicial killings.

In January, the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) temporarily revoked Rappler’s registration on the basis that it had violated the country’s constitution over foreign ownership rules.

At the time, Ressa said: “We need to continue. What we say at Rappler is, ‘we going to hold the line.’ We’re not doing anything but journalism. We’re speaking truth to power. That’s what we do.”

A spokesman for Duterte told CNN Philippines earlier this year that the President had “nothing to do with the SEC decision.”

Awarded for ‘intrepid’ reporting

The day before Friday’s announcement of tax evasion charges, Ressa was in the US to accept a Knight International Journalism Award from the International Committee for Journalists (ICFJ).

In a statement announcing the award, the ICFJ lauded Ressa as an “intrepid editor and media innovator who holds a spotlight to the Philippine government’s bloody war on drugs.”

Ressa said that Duterte was using the same tactics that were now being seen in the US, including the banning of journalists and labeling of critical stories as “fake news.”

“Our problems are fast becoming your problems. Boundaries around the world have collapsed,” she said, according to an ICFJ statement dated November 9.

Internet freedom declining

Freedom House, a US government-funded NGO, released a report earlier this month found that internet freedom had declined worldwide for the eighth consecutive year.

Of 65 countries examined, the Philippines suffered one of the biggest drops in a point-scoring method that assesses internet access, freedom of expression, and privacy issues, according to the report “Freedom on the Net.”

The report now categorizes the country as “Partly Free,” partly due to the “harassment of dissenting voices.”

“Rappler was a frequent target with at least two libel charges filed related to the outlet’s critical reporting of government officials and powerful business people,” the report said in its section on the Philippines.

Earlier this year, leading human rights activists urged the government to stop attempts to shut down Rappler.

“We are gravely concerned that the government is moving to revoke Rappler’s licence,” three United Nations Special Rapporteurs said in a joint statement.

“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,” said the statement, signed by David Kaye, Michel Forst and Agnes Callamard.

Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has herself been verbally attacked by Duterte who called her a “fool” and threatened to “slap” her if she persisted in investigating the war on drugs. Late in 2016, the government said she wasn’t welcome in the country.

On Saturday, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, tweeted the January statement and added: “(Duterte’s) been trying to intimidate @rapplerdotcom for a long time.”