The Philippine government is on a crusade to silence Rappler, a pioneering news website that has challenged the government’s policies and claims.
Here’s what you need to know about the website and the charges:
Who is at the center of the story?
Maria Ressa is the founder and executive editor of Rappler. She worked with several colleagues to launch the website in Manila in 2012. Ressa’s work and bravery has been heralded by press freedom organizations all around the world, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
The other figure at the center of this story is the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been harshly critical of journalists.
Ressa and Rappler have been targeted by authorities in the Philippines for more than a year. She says “they want to intimidate us into stopping the stories we’re doing.”
What does Rappler do?
Rappler calls itself “independent journalism with impact.” The website covers a wide range of stories, from politics to entertainment to sports, with a focus on news for Filipinos. The site is free to access, but it also has a paid membership program for people who want to support the site.
The site lists five principles: “We reimagine a better future for journalism and society. We protect public interest above all other interests. We celebrate the good and unmask the bad. We are transparent, accountable, and consistent. We ask, we explain, we investigate.”
How has the government reacted to Rappler?
The Philippines has a checkered record when it comes to freedom of the press. The government has “developed several methods for pressuring and silencing journalists who criticize Duterte’s notorious ‘war on drugs,’” according to Reporters Without Borders. Some of those methods have been applied against Rappler. Since Duterte took office in 2016, the country’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index fell to No. 133 out of 180 countries.
The Philippine government revoked Rappler’s operating license in January 2018. Multiple criminal charges were filed against the site later in the year. For now, the Rappler staff continues to report and publish the news.
What are the charges?
“There are six or seven different cases,” Ressa explained in an interview on CNN last November. “This particular one which the government said they would indict me and Rappler on is tax evasion. Essentially they reclassified Rappler from being a journalist organization to a dealer in securities or a stockbroker. And then they said ‘You owe us all these taxes who haven’t paid.’” Rappler’s lawyers have been fighting the charges in court.
When was Ressa arrested?
On Wednesday, February 13, in another escalation of the matter, Ressa was arrested for “cyber libel.” The story on Rappler’s homepage said “the arrest is in connection with a story published by Rappler in May 2012 – or 4 months before the law that Maria Ressa and researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr allegedly violated was enacted.”
Why does Rappler believe it has been targeted?
Ressa describes it as political harassment. “We’re focused on the drug war that has brutally killed –the police claim 5,000 people – but human rights groups go to tens of thousands. The exact number, we have no idea,” she said.
How is Facebook involved?
Ressa believes that “exponential lies on social media” have emboldened the government to crack down on journalists in her country. She has been outspoken about Facebook being “weaponized.” The social network helped Rappler gain audience and attention when it launched, but she noticed that “lies” about Rappler were seeded on social media and then used to form the “basis of the cases that the government filed against us.”