We stand with Rappler as they are ordered to shutdown

Dear readers and viewers,

We thought this day would never come, even as we were warned in the first of week of December last year that the Securities and Exchange Commission  (SEC) would be handing down a ruling against us. Because we have acted in good faith and adhered to the best standards in a fast-evolving business environment, we were confident that the country’s key business regulator would put public interest above other interests that were at play in this case. We were, in fact, initially relieved that it was the SEC that initiated what appeared to us as a customary due diligence act, considering our prior information that it was the Office of the Solicitor General that had formed, as early as November 2016, a special team to build a case against us. We were wrong. The SEC’s kill order revoking Rappler’s license to operate is the first of its kind in history – both for the Commission and for Philippine media. What this means for you, and for us, is that the Commission is ordering us to close shop, to cease telling you stories, to stop speaking truth to power, and to let go of everything that we have built – and created – with you since 2012. All because they focused on one clause in one of our contracts which we submitted to – and was accepted by – the SEC in 2015. Now the Commission is accusing us of violating the Constitution, a serious charge considering how, as a company imbued with public interest, we have consistently been transparent and above-board in our practices. Every year since we incorporated in 2012, we have dutifully complied with all SEC regulations and submitted all requirements even at the risk of exposing our corporate data to irresponsible hands with an agenda. Transparency, we believe, is the best proof of good faith and good conduct. All these seem not to matter as far as the SEC is concerned. In a record investigation time of 5 months and after President Duterte himself blasted Rappler in his second SONA in July 2017, the SEC released thisruling against us. This is pure and simple harassment, the seeming coup de grace to the relentless and malicious attacks against us since 2016:

We intend to not only contest this through all legal processes available to us, but also to fight for our freedom to do journalism and for your right to be heard through an independent platform like Rappler. We’ve been through a lot together, through good and bad – sharing stories, building communities, inspiring hope, uncovering wrongdoing, battling trolls, exposing the fake. We will continue bringing you the news, holding the powerful to account for their actions and decisions, calling attention to government lapses that further disempower the disadvantaged. We will hold the line.  The support you’ve shown us all this time, and our commitment to tell you stories without fear, give us hope.  You inspire courage. You have taught us that when you stand and fight for what is right, there is no dead-end, only obstacles that can only make us stronger.  We ask you to stand with us again at this difficult time. – Rappler.com

This statement was originally posted here on the Rappler site

The dangers of “red tagging” and other lessons from the Philippines

On the face of it, Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, the son of the late dictator of the Philippines, won a substantial democratic mandate in the presidential elections on 10 May. The president-elect, better known as Bongbong, will assume office at the end of June, having polled twice as many votes as his nearest rival. He will be joined in office by running mate Sara Duterte, who is the daughter of the outgoing president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has attracted international condemnation for his brutal war on drugs. The alliance of the children of two authoritarian leaders has raised serious concern among human rights activists in the country.

Rey Valmores, chair of Bahagari (Rainbow), a leading LGBTQ+ organisation in the Philippines, admits she is still reeling from the result of the election. She cites Amnesty International on the scale of abuse under the previous Marcos regime: an estimated 3,200 extra-judicial killings, 35,000 cases of torture and the incarceration of over 70,000 political opponents. Now, 36 years on from the popular revolution that ousted the Marcos family from power, she says Marcos Jnr is re-writing history and whitewashing the past with a vast campaign of denialist propaganda.

“You can imagine just how ironic it is for us,” said Valmores. “The man was ousted by millions of Filipinos taking to the streets and now his son is the frontrunner who has refused to acknowledge that crimes were committed.”

Marcos inherits a country devastated by the effects of years of corruption and cronyism — a situation exacerbated by the Covid pandemic — with nearly a quarter of the population below the poverty line. Terrorism legislation introduced in 2020 allows 14-day detention without an arrest warrant and has been used to target the opposition. The war on drugs has left thousands of alleged dealers dead as a result of extra-judicial summary executions. The media in Philippines remains vibrant despite an onslaught from Duterte since 2016, including judicial harassment, cyberattacks and many slurs from Duterte himself.

Valmores challenges the idea that the election of Marcos Jnr was genuinely democratic: “If you say, a country is democratic, that means that the will of the people genuinely gets followed. That means that you have democratic institutions upholding democratic values.” Instead, she and other activists claim the Marcos family has used its vast wealth to fund troll farms pumping out a campaign of disinformation to rewrite history and vilify opponents.

Of particular concern to activists like Valmores is the practice of “red tagging”, which has come about as a consequence of the seemingly interminable civil war between the Philippine state and the Communist Party of the Philippines which started in 1972. Indeed, the country faces a civil war on two fronts with its struggle against Muslim separatists in the south of the country. If a political opponent is “red tagged” it means they are linked, often via social media, to the New People’s Army, the military wing of the Communist Party. “This has repercussions, we have seen it time and time again. A person gets red-tagged and suddenly they have all these trumped-up charges filed against them. They are arrested or even murdered.”

The real test will come after Marcos Jnr officially takes office on 30 June. But the prospects for transparency are not good. He refused to participate in presidential debates, for example. “He did not want to face people,” said Valmores. “He was basically someone who… was just fuelled by no doubt billions of pesos in terms of lies and historical revisionism and that’s how he became a contender. That is hardly democratic to me. We already see the kind of presidency this is shaping up to be.”

With the daughter of the outgoing president as his running mate, it seems unlikely that Marcos Jnr will be able to distance himself from the abuses of the previous incumbent. Estimates vary on the number of deaths in Duterte’s drug war, but the International Criminal Court has said it could be as many as 30,000 people. These are mostly people from poor, urban communities suspected of being drug dealers, or sometimes just users. Human rights organisations have voiced concerns about the number of people, in particular children, killed as a result of police anti-drug operations.

Valmores is not optimistic: “The fact that Marcos is willing to consort with Duterte, the fact that Marcos does not recognise the crimes of his father, the fact that Marcos is not prepared to pay back all the ill-gotten wealth, the fact that he is prepared to bend history to put his family back into power. All that is a clear indication to me that the things we’re facing now, the poverty, the hunger, and the killings… will most definitely continue.”

Meanwhile, despite its reputation as a gay-friendly country, Valmores points out that the Philippines still has no legislation to protect her community against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. “Ferdinand Marcos has remained completely silent on the LGBT issue,” she said. “He has refused to comment on what laws he is willing to support for the LGBT community. Which tells us we are most definitely not a priority for him.”

Asked what the international community can do to help bring attention on the Philippines, Valmores says it is important not to forget the country’s troubled history, especially during the Marcos years. At the same time, she believes the world has a responsibility to get the truth out about what is really going on. “The troll farms I mentioned that Marcos uses to manipulate public perception: it’s absolutely not a joke. There are instances where I just create a post that criticises Marcos, and it gets flooded by dozens and dozens of accounts that are very clearly automated and following a script. I think the only way out of that is by countering those views with the truth. Even just sharing what is happening in the Philippines on the ground right now. I think it makes a huge difference when it comes to combating this narrative, this alternative history that they’re creating.”

The world will do well to watch carefully what develops here when Marcos Jnr takes power at the end of this week. Watch and learn. The Philippines is not alone in facing this kind of democratic crisis fuelled by propaganda, fake news and the rewriting of history.

Why journalists need emergency safe havens

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117182″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]

The number of journalists killed while doing their work rose in 2020. It’s no wonder, then, that a team of internationally acclaimed lawyers are advising governments to introduce emergency visas for reporters who have to flee for their lives when work becomes too dangerous.

The High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, a group of lawyers led by Amal Clooney and former president of the UK Supreme Court Lord Neuberger, has called for these visas to be made available quickly. The panel advises a coalition of 47 countries on how to prevent the erosion of media freedom, and how to hold to account those who harm journalists.

At the launch of the panel’s report, Clooney said the current options open to journalists in danger were “almost without exception too lengthy to provide real protection”. She added: “I would describe the bottom line as too few countries offer ‘humanitarian’ visas that could apply to journalists in danger as a result of their work.”

The report that includes these recommendations was written by barrister Can Yeğinsu. It has been formally endorsed by the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur for freedom of expression, and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.

As highlighted by the recent release of an International Federation of Journalists report showing 65 journalists and media workers were killed in 2020 – up 17 from 2019 – and 200 were jailed for their work, the issue is incredibly urgent.

Index has spoken to journalists who know what it is like to work in dangerous situations about why emergency visas are vital, and to the lawyer leading the charge to create them.

Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim, who has worked for the BBC Arabic Service, has reported on her country’s civil war. She believes part of the problem for journalists forced to flee because of their work is that many immigration systems are not set up to be reactive to those kinds of situations, “because the procedures for visas and immigration is so strict, and so slow and bureaucratic”.

Erhaim, who grew up in Idlib in Syria’s north-west, went on to report from rebel-held areas during the civil war, and she also trained citizen journalists.

The journalist, who won an Index award in 2016, has been threatened with death and harassed online. She moved to Turkey for her own safety and has spoken about not feeling safe to report on Syria at times, even from overseas, because of the threats.

She believes that until emergency visas are available quickly to those in urgent need, things will not change. “Until someone is finally able to act, journalists will either be in hiding, scared, assassinated or already imprisoned,” she said.

“Many journalists don’t even need to emigrate when they’re being targeted or feel threatened. Some just need some peace for three or four months to put their mind together, and think what they’ve been through and decide whether they should come back or find another solution.”

Erhaim, who currently lives in the UK, said it was also important to think about journalists’ families.

Eritrean journalist Abraham Zere is living in exile in the USA after fleeing his country. He feels the visa proposal would offer journalists in challenging political situations some sense of hope. “It’s so very important for local journalists to [be able to] flee their country from repressive regimes.”

Eritrea is regularly labelled the worst country in the world for journalists, taking bottom position in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index 2021, below North Korea. The RSF report highlights that 11 journalists are currently imprisoned in Eritrea without access to lawyers.

Zere said: “Until I left the country, for the last three years I was always prepared to be arrested. As a result of that constant fear, I abandoned writing. But if I were able to secure such a visa, I would have some sense of security.”

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is a journalist formerly based in Hong Kong who has recently moved to Taiwan. He has worked as an editor for the Hong Kong Free Press, as well as for the South China Morning Post, Time and The Wall Street Journal.

“I wasn’t facing any immediate threats of violence, harassment, that sort of thing, [but] the environment for the journalists in Hong Kong was becoming a lot darker and a lot more dire, and [it was] a lot more difficult to operate there,” he said.

He added that although his need to move wasn’t because of threats, it had illustrated how difficult a relocation like that could be. “I tried applying from Hong Kong. I couldn’t get a visa there. I then had to go halfway around the world to Canada to apply for a completely different visa there to get to Taiwan.”

He feels the panel’s recommendation is much needed. “Obviously, journalists around the world are facing politically motivated harassment or prosecution, or even violence or death. And [with] the framework as it is now, journalists don’t really fit very neatly in it.”

As far as the current situation for journalists in Hong Kong is concerned, he said: “It became a lot more dangerous reporting on protests in Hong Kong. It’s immediate physical threats and facing tear gas, police and street clashes every day. The introduction of the national security law last year has made reporting a lot more difficult. Virtually overnight, sources are reluctant to speak to you, even previously very vocal people, activists and lawyers.”

In the few months since the panel launched its report and recommendations, no country has announced it will lead the way by offering emergency visas, but there are some promising signs from the likes of Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. [The Dutch House of Representatives passed a vote on facilitating the issuance of emergency visas for journalists at the end of June.]

Report author Yeğinsu, who is part of the international legal team representing Rappler journalist Maria Ressa in the Philippines, is positive about the response, and believes that the new US president Joe Biden is giving global leadership on this issue. He said: “It is always the few that need to lead. It’ll be interesting to see who does that.”

However, he pointed out that journalists have become less safe in the months since the report’s publication, with governments introducing laws during the pandemic that are being used aggressively against journalists.

Yeğinsu said the “recommendations are geared to really respond to instances where there’s a safety issue… so where the journalist is just looking for safe refuge”. This could cover a few options, such as a temporary stay or respite before a journalist returns home.

The report puts into context how these emergency visas could be incorporated into immigration systems such as those in the USA, Canada, the EU and the UK, at low cost and without the need for massive changes.

One encouraging sign came when former Canadian attorney-general Irwin Cotler said that “the Canadian government welcomes this report and is acting upon it”, while the UK foreign minister Lord Ahmad said his government “will take this particular report very seriously”. If they do not, the number of journalists killed and jailed while doing their jobs is likely to rise.

[This week, 20 UK media organisations issued an open letter calling for emergency visas for reporters in Afghanistan who have been targeted by the Taliban. Ruchi Kumar recently wrote for Index about the threats against journalists in Afghanistan from the Taliban.] [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Masked by Covid