Philippine fact-checkers are under attack — again

Maria Ressa has spent much of the past few months in and out of jail.

Ressa, the chief executive of Rappler, a news website and fact-checking operation in the Philippines, was arrested in February on digital libel charges. Press freedom groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists were swift to condemn the arrest, saying it was yet another move by the Philippine government to intimidate the media.

It wasn’t Ressa’s first rodeo; in the past, the government had tried to indict her for tax evasion, revoke Rappler’s registration and even block the website, which Duterte calls “fake news.” She was quickly released on bail.

Then, in March, Ressa was arrested again, this time at the Manila airport for allegedly violating laws about foreign ownership of Rappler. Again, she was released on bail shortly after. Twitter users quickly showed their support for Ressa, who was named one of Time magazine’s People of the Year in 2018, with the hashtags #HoldTheLine and #DefendPressFreedom.

Now, fact-checkers in the Philippines are under attack from the government again. But this time, they’re being wrongfully accused of a charge that isn’t bailable.

On April 22, The Manila Times published an article claiming that several media and human rights organizations were plotting to oust President Duterte. As evidence, the newspaper cited an anonymous man’s video series and “a highly placed source in the Office of the President.”

There’s just one problem with that: The Manila Times is owned and operated by Duterte’s international public relations head, Dante Ang — who even put his byline on the piece, according to Rappler, one of the sites targeted in the story.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo held a press conference about the accusations the same day the Manila Times article was published. This week, he walked back the source of the ouster allegations, saying he received them from an anonymous, unverified number.

Fact-checking site Vera Files and two nonprofit organizations were also accused of coordinating the fictitious ouster plot.

“Essentially, two of the three Facebook third-party fact check partners here, Vera Files and our own organization, Rappler, are accused of being part of a destabilization plot,” wrote Gemma Mendoza, head of research and content strategy for Rappler, in an email to the International Fact-Checking Network listserv April 24. “We are concerned because, if ever, this will be the first charge against the press here that is potentially non-bailable.”

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In the Philippines, being accused of overthrowing the government is not a charge you can post bail for. Rappler reported that if the government were to bring such formal charges against it and Vera Files, they would have to remain in prison until a trial.

Rappler debunked the charges in a fact check published April 24, citing the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which said that they had not uncovered any specific threat against Duterte. The justice secretary backed up that assertion.

“We reviewed the Manila Times article and transcripts from the press conference held by Panelo after the article was released and found at least 10 claims which are either outright false, misleading, or unproven based on the information provided,” the site wrote before debunking each claim one-by-one.

While a bizarre and aggressive attack against fact-checkers in the Philippines, whose press Freedom House rated as “partly free,” this isn’t the first time they’ve been called out explicitly.

Last summer, Vera Files and Rappler were attacked online after they joined Facebook’s fact-checking partnership. The program lets independent fact-checkers flag false posts, decreasing their future reach on the platform and warning users who share them. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)

Yvonna Chua, co-founder of Vera Files, previously told Poynter that trolls would fill her staff’s social media feeds with hate and threats every day for weeks. The attacks mainly came from Duterte supporters who accused the fact-checkers of being censors biased against the administration. The government even joined in.

After Vera Files President Ellen Tordesillas and Ressa were threatened, both outlets issued statements defending their work. Other than that, they tried to avoid the trolls.

“We always knew that they wanted attention and they wanted the interaction and engagement. As I’ve always said, as a rule, we don’t feed the trolls,” Chua said at the time.

Partially as a result of those attacks, the IFCN partnered with the Media Legal Defence Initiative and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to develop a legal defense fund for fact-checkers worldwide. The Fact-Checkers Legal Support Initiative “connects fact-checkers with pro bono lawyers, helps to pay legal fees and produces guides on legal and non-legal issues fact-checkers need to know,” according to its website.

Are you a fact-checking organization in need of legal help? Apply for aid here.

These fact-checkers were attacked online after partnering with Facebook