MANILA: The Philippine government has revoked the operating licence of leading news website Rappler, officials said Monday (Jan 15) in a ruling denounced by President Rodrigo Duterte's critics as another blow to press freedom.
Rappler, set up in 2012, is among a clutch of Philippine news organisations that have sparred with Duterte over their critical coverage of his brutal drugs war.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said it had revoked the incorporation certificates of Rappler and Rappler Holdings Corp because they violated a provision in the Philippine constitution reserving media ownership to Filipinos.
"(Both are) existing for no other purpose than to effect a deceptive scheme to circumvent the constitution," the agency said in a Jan 11 ruling posted on its website Monday.
Rappler's acting managing editor Chay Hofilena told reporters the company would file a court appeal against the ruling, which is due to take effect in 15 days.
"This is pure and simple harassment, the seeming coup de grace to the relentless and malicious attacks against us since 2016," the website said in a statement, adding Duterte was among those who had attacked it.
"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," it said.
The case concerns Rappler Holdings' decision to issue Philippine depositary receipts for shares of Rappler Inc that the government said were sold to foreign companies.
At his state of the nation address to Congress last year Duterte vowed to expose Rappler's "American ownership".
The ruling followed setbacks suffered by other Philippine news organisations which have criticised Duterte's war on drugs that has killed nearly 4,000 suspects.
In March last year Duterte described top newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer and leading television broadcaster ABS-CBN as "sons of whores" and warned them of karmic repercussions over their criticism of his drug war.
"I'm not threatening them but someday their karma will catch up with them," Duterte said.
"They're shameless, those sons of whore journalists," Duterte said.
Four months later the Inquirer announced its owners were in talks to sell the publication. A business tycoon who backed Duterte's 2016 election bid later disclosed he was planning to buy the Inquirer.
Last year Duterte threatened to block ABS-CBN's application to renew its operating franchise, a permit that requires congressional approval.
The mass media watchdog group National Union of Journalists of the Philippines denounced the Rappler ruling.
"It was but one of many threats Duterte has made against media critical of him and his governance, such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer and broadcast network ABS-CBN," the union said in a statement.
"We call on all Filipino journalists to unite and resist every and all attempts to silence us," the group added.
Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros also criticised the Rappler ruling, calling it "pure harassment and a clear attack on press freedom".
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the government respected the SEC ruling.
"The Securities and Exchange Commission is empowered to determine the legality of corporations," Roque said in a statement.
He added that Rappler "may wish to exhaust all available remedies until the decision becomes final".