April 19, 2022

Rappler, the independent Philippine news organization, is fighting back against the Office of the Solicitor General of the Philippines, which launched a successful campaign last month to suspend Rappler’s fact-checking agreement with the Philippine Commission of Elections.

On March 8, Commissioner of Elections Socorro Inting yielded to pressure from a letter sent by Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida urging her to suspend the elections fact-checking agreement between Rappler and the commission, known as COMELEC. The memorandum of agreement, though now suspended, is still in contention as Rappler has appealed to the Supreme Court of the Philippines, calling out the faulty legal footing of the solicitor general’s arguments.

In addition to appealing COMELEC’s decision at the Philippine high courts, Rappler is continuing the work facilitated by the agreement, just without its help.

“It’s always easier to partner with the commission (of elections), given the bureaucracy of the Philippine government,” Gemma Mendoza, Rappler’s head of digital strategy, said of the memorandum of agreement. “If we need information, or access to data, for instance. It’s technically public information, but typically if you ask for all of that it would require a lot of time. The reason why we enter the agreement is that we save time.”

Instead of collaborating with COMELEC for expedited access, Rappler journalists must overcome bureaucratic hurdles to obtain information.

“We still plan to do the things we do,” Mendoza said. “We’ve still been fact-checking, and implementing the other plans, like the website, and other information dissemination projects.”

Calida’s legal basis against Rappler rests on the constitutional principle of prior restraint. His office has claimed that Rappler’s fact-checking partnership with COMELEC — which evaluates claims made during the elections process for truth — would prevent publication of information and is therefore a free-speech violation. Review and elimination of content ahead of its publication is considered a free speech violation under the Philippine constitution, except in cases that would present immediate risks to public safety.

“There can be no ‘prior restraint’ in the activity of ‘fact-checking’ since what is being ‘fact-checked’ are statements that have already been published and disseminated. On this basis alone, the OSG’s claim that ‘fact-checking’ constitutes ‘prior restraint’ must fail,” Rappler’s letter reads.

In his petition to COMELEC, Calida made a host of other assertions about Rappler’s power over the voting process — claims Rappler rejects either as exaggerations or outright falsehoods.

In the past, Rappler has investigated multiple multi-million dollar contracts between Calida’s family-owned security firm, Vigilant, and the Philippine government. Through this lens, Calida’s actions can be viewed as direct payback against the publication for uncovering his personal misconduct. The effort to stymie Rappler’s election coverage agreement is part of a larger campaign — involving more than eight lawsuits — to end Rappler’s overall readership and crush its business.

“(The solicitor general’s) petition is not one of the Filipino people, but of the solicitor general who continues in his warlike offensive against Rappler on the heels of President Duterte’s publicly displayed seeming hatred of Rappler,” Rappler said in a statement.

Rappler has indicated it was somewhat blindsided by Inting’s decision, as COMELEC’s lawyers had reviewed Calida’s petition letter alongside Rappler’s. As the case is ongoing, Rappler declined to comment beyond an official statement.

“As in 2016 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the “widest dissemination” of information during elections, we are confident that our good justices recognize the value of independent institutions working together again for nothing less than an informed choice on May 9,” Rappler said.

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Seth Smalley is a reporter at Poynter and the IFCN. Get in touch at seth@poynter.org or on Twitter @sethsalex.
Seth Smalley

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