Duterte Hits `Fake News' as Critics Warn of Media Crackdown

(Bloomberg) -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte branded news website Rappler Inc. a “fake news outlet”, but denied he influenced the Securities and Exchange Commission’s order to shut down the news agency known to be critical of his government.

“You can stop your suspicious mind from roaming somewhere else. But since you are a fake news outlet then I am not surprised that your articles are also fake,” Duterte said in a press briefing in Pasay City on Tuesday, addressing a Rappler reporter. “You went overboard, you are not only throwing toilet paper, you are throwing shit at us.”

He lashed out at the media outlet for its news story which said his assistant Bong Go intervened in a 15.5 billion-peso ($306 million) project to acquire two warships for the Navy. This was also reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a newspaper Duterte has repeatedly attacked and which is now up for sale. Go denied the allegations.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said Duterte was trying to stifle media that had criticized his deadly drug war. Duterte said Rappler is owned by Americans and as such violates the Philippine constitution.

“We never had a hand” on the SEC decision, Duterte said in a speech. Press freedom “is a privilege in a democratic state. You have overused and abused that privilege.”

Rappler Chief Executive Officer Maria Ressa said the company is prepared to challenge the shutdown order in the Supreme Court. “We will hold the line,” Ressa said in a televised interview with ABS-CBN News Channel, describing the order as a corporate and press freedom issue.

The SEC revoked Rappler’s certificate of incorporation for allegedly violating foreign-equity restrictions in mass media, citing the unique terms found in Philippine Deposit Receipts issued to the Omidyar Network Fund Inc. of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The regulator said the terms effectively gave veto powers over Rappler’s actions to a foreign entity. PDRs are instruments that give foreign investors passive economic interest in Philippine companies.

Omidyar has no control over Rappler, Ressa said, noting that the provision in question simply gives the fund the option to leave if it doesn’t agree with the company’s direction. Omidyar eventually waived the provision following the SEC probe, which Ressa said was ignored by regulators.

The move to close the outlet was "an alarming attempt to silence independent journalism," James Gomez, Amnesty International’s director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement. “This is a politically-motivated decision, pure and simple, and just the latest attempt to go after anyone who dares to criticize the government."

Rappler can appeal the decision with the Court of Appeals within 15 days, SEC Secretary Armando Pan told reporters Tuesday.

“If Duterte succeeds in silencing Rappler, it will have a profound chilling effect on Philippine media freedom, encouraging self-censorship by reporters and media outlets fearful of government reprisals,” said Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia.

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