UN critics join global outrage over Duterte’s Rappler ‘free press’ attack

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: UN critics join global outrage over Duterte’s Rappler ‘free press’ attack

Rappler’s CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa says that the Philippine government spends a lot of effort to turn journalism into a crime which shouldn’t be the case. Video: Rappler


Three United Nations special rapporteurs have added their voice to the global protests this month over the President Rodrigo Durterte government bureaucracy’s attack on the independent online news website Rappler and a free press in the Philippines.

Rappler has been the latest media target for the administration’s wrath over a tenacious public interest watchdog that has been relentless in its coverage of the republic’s so-called “war on drugs” and state disinformation.

Some media freedom advocates claim that the Philippines is facing its worst free expression and security crisis since the Marcos dictatorship, with The New York Times denouncing the “ruthlessness” and “viciousness” of Duterte’s disdain for democracy.

The death toll in the extrajudicial spate of killings range between 3993 (official) and more than 7000 or even double that figure since Duterte took office on June 30, 2016, according to human rights agencies.

Headlined “After killing spree, is a free press Mr Duterte’s next victim”, the NY Times editorial said: “Even among that cast of illiberal leaders who rouse mobs with their ruthless policies and disdain for democratic protections, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines stands out for his viciousness.


“He has effectively declared open season on those he and his minions accuse of being drug users and dealers … Exposing such brazen abuse of power is a hallowed mission of a free press, so it should come as no surprise that authoritarians like Mr Duterte usually go after independent media.”

The NY Times described Rappler as a “tenacious critic of the president’s vicious crackdown” and this had led to the government announcing on January 15 it was revoking the online news site’s licence.

No hard evidence
Media freedom watchdogs say the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has produced no hard evidence to support its “foreign ownership” in breach of the constitution accusations against Rappler and the company that owns it, Rappler Holding Corp. Rappler is challenging this SEC ruling through the courts.

Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez denied any “political motivation” behind the SEC ruling on Rappler.

In a letter to the editor published by the Times on January 24 in response to the editorial, Romualdez described SEC chairperson Teresita Herbosa as “a person of unimpeachable character”.

Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa (right) speaking to colleagues at the Black Friday for press freedom rally in Quezon City, Philippines. With her is Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) executive director Malou Mangahas, who also spoke at the rally. Mangahas was recently in New Zealand for the Pacific Media Centre 10th anniversary celebration. Image: Rappler

Rappler and many supporting news groups staged “Black Friday” demonstrations across the Philippines on January 19 when chief executive Maria Ressa declared her organisation would “ hold the line” on press freedom, insisting journalism was “not a crime”.

“We’re doing journalism. We’re speaking truth to power. We’re not afraid and we won’t be intimidated,” she said.

Ressa has joined a group of courageous, outspoken and defiant women opposed to Duterte who are “being marginalised, silenced, or worse”, according to The Diplomat.

They include Vice-President Leni Robredo (effectively gagged and whose office will be eliminated under Duterte’s controversial “federalism” plans) and Senator Leila De Lima, a human rights advocate (jailed for the past year on trumped up charges that have yet to be tried).

Highly successful and innovative website
Ressa founded Rappler in 2011, originally on Facebook, after being CNN’s leading Asia investigative journalist for several years. It has been a highly successful and innovative online and “citizen journalism” website, with an Indonesian edition.

Rappler also currently faces a “cyber libel” complaint that is seen as highly dangerous for the media.

Duterte has also threatened to block renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise – the largest and most influential television network in the Philippines and publicly criticised the Philippines Daily Inquirer for its alleged “slanted reporting”. (A Duterte crony, San Miguel beer baron Ramon Ang, then seized a majority ownership stake in the company).

University of the Philippines journalism professor Daniel Arao said the President’s criticism echoed the martial law era, when then dictator Ferdinand Marcos ordered the shutdown of media outlets that were critical of his regime.

“The Duterte administration is being creative in terms of harassing and intimidating the media, but there is also the brutality, the bullying and the crassness,” Dr Arao said.

“Right now, he might even end up worse than Marcos.”

Other media freedom advocates have also warned that the Philippines is sliding into its “darkest chapter” of Philippine history between 1972 and 1986.

‘Flagrant’ violation
Describing the government’s stance as a “flagrant” violation of press freedom, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders watchdog announced it had asked the United Nations, UNESCO and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take a stand.

“The decision to close Rappler is fraught with danger, hence the urgency of referring it to these international bodies,” RSF deputy director-general Antoine Bernard said. “We are very concerned about the safety of its journalists and the protection of their sources, especially as Rappler is well known for the quality of its investigative reporting.”

The watchdog’s Asia-Pacific director Daniel Bastard added: “For more than a year, Duterte’s notorious troll army has been spreading the rumour that Rappler is 100 percent foreign-owned.”

In a joint statement on Thursday, the three UN special rapporteurs said they were “gravely concerned” about the government moves to revoke Rappler’s licence.

“Rappler’s work rests on its own freedom to impart information, and more importantly its vast readership to have access to public interest reporting,” said the rapporteurs.

“As a matter of human rights law, there is no basis to block it from operating. Rappler and other independent outlets need particular protection because of the essential role they play in ensuring robust public debate.”

The rapporteurs are: David Kaye (Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression), Agnes Callamard (Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions), and Michael Forst (Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders).

‘Dangerous, risk of murder’
Writing in The Diplomat, University of Portsmouth academic Dr Tom Smith warned that journalism in the Philippines “has long been a dangerous trade, one that carries a very real risk of murder with little likelihood of accountability”.

He reminded readers of the 2009 Maguindanao massacre when 58 people, including 32 journalists, were “hacked to death, allegedly by members of the Ampatuan clan”. There had been no justice so far for the victims so far in a flawed prosecution case that has crawled over the past decade.

“Yet it is vitally important that Filipinos have a robust critical press to question a government up to its neck in human rights abuses.”

This is why so many people were despairing with the news that Duterte’s administration is trying to ban Rappler.

Dr David Robie is editor of Asia Pacific Report, published by the Pacific Media Centre.

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Philippines reporting risks grow under ‘The Punisher’, says PCIJ advocate

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Philippines reporting risks grow under ‘The Punisher’, says PCIJ advocate

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism executive director Malou Mangahas speaking at the Pacific Media Centre’s 10th anniversary media freedom summit at Auckland University of Technology. Image: Khairiah A. Rahman/PMC

Pacific Media Watch Newsdesk

Journalists in the Philippines take their life in their hands doing their job. What was already one of the world’s riskiest places to be a reporter has become even more difficult under President Rodrigo Duterte and his “war on drugs”, reports RNZ’s Mediawatch.

In today’s Mediawatch programme featuring the executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Malou Mangahas, who spoke at “Journalism Under Duress in Asia-Pacific”, a summit marking the 10th anniversary of Auckland University of Technology’s Pacific Media Centre, presenter Colin Peacock reports:

When the Philippines appears in the news here these days, it’s not normally good news.

Most stories focus on the maverick president Rodrigo Duterte – nicknamed The Punisher – who is often compared to Donald Trump. Many of those stories also refer to the bloody crackdown of his ‘war on drugs’ launched after he took power last year.

READ MORE: Journalism under duress in Asia-Pacific – an introduction

Thousands of people have been killed by vigilante-style policing since mid-2016.

PCIJ’s Malou Mangahas (centre) at the Pacific Media Centre with RNZ’s Johnny Blades, Pacific Media Watch’s Kendall Hutt and PMC’s Del Abcede. Image: David Robie/PMC


In her APEC visit to Manila last month, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the deaths “require investigation . . at the very least” – and in a rather awkward-looking press conference, she also made a point of telling the president New Zealand’s police are unarmed.

The culture of impunity allowing police to kill suspected drug users and sellers in the Philippines is also putting journalists under severe pressure – and in some cases getting them killed too.

The extra-judicial killings are often officially explained as self-defence or the results of shoot-outs. But sometimes media reports show otherwise.

This week, Reuters news agency published a startling multi-media report called Operation Kill detailing the extra-judicial killings of three men and how the circumstances were covered up by police officers.

“The Philippines has one of the most free presses in Asia, and it also one of the rambunctious in its exercise of freedom,” said Malou Mangahas.

“The drug problem is very serious and that is accepted across the country. It is the method of the war on drugs is what has divided it.”


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No Philippine law tackles ‘Paradise Papers’ 200 offshore accounts

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: No Philippine law tackles ‘Paradise Papers’ 200 offshore accounts

ANALYSIS: By Malou Mangahas and Karol Ilagan in Manila

What do some bankers and fund managers, a few senior government officials, a dozen top taxpayers, and a handful of companies located in the Philippines have in common?

They are among some 200 Filipinos, Philippine residents, and corporations that own or are linked to offshore accounts in tax havens across the world, according to the “Paradise Papers” cache of 13.4 million confidential electronic documents that had been leaked and exposed this month.

READ MORE: PCIJ’s Malou Mangahas to speak at Pacific Media Centre’s 10 years On event in Auckland


While having offshore accounts is not a wrongdoing per se, in some cases, these may be used to avoid or evade tax payments in their host countries, hide unexplained wealth, or move illicit and fraudulent financial flows across borders.

The latest expose by “Paradise Papers,” which has led to stories by media outfits such as the BBC and the UK newspaper The Guardian, covers offshore investments made by the law firm Appleby and corporate service providers Estera and Asiaciti Trust in 19 tax jurisdictions in the world.

About 120,000 people and companies are enrolled in “Paradise Papers,” including Philippine citizens, residents, and business entities.


Leaked papers
The “Paradise Papers” data files were leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared these with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) based in Washington, DC, and its global reporting network of over 380 journalists from 100 news organisations, including PCIJ.

PCIJ reviewed the list with special attention to apparent transparency and accountability issues. PCIJ thus sent inquiry letters to about a dozen individuals who had served as senior state officials, donated to candidates for president, own or run major corporate entities, or are tied to contracts with government.

Not all the Philippine accounts are active as of the current year. Most accounts are listed to be operational still while some turned out to have been dissolved already, according to those PCIJ reached for comment.

PARADISE PAPERS: For the full list of persons and companies, check out ICIJ’s Paradise Papers database

This is the second round of PCIJ reporting on offshore accounts with ICIJ. In 2013, PCIJ wrote about the offshore ties of then re-electionist Ilocos Norte Gov. Maria Imelda “Imee” Marcos, then senator Manuel “Manny” B. Villar Jr., and then senatorial candidate Jose Victor ‘JV’ Ejercito. They all failed to disclose their interests offshore in their Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth.

Five of those PCIJ sought for comment, as well as replies from the law and accountancy firms that had assisted them, invariably disowned or denied any wrongdoing had been committed in regard to their offshore accounts.

But Filipino and Philippine-based offshore account holders may have nothing to worry about for now. At present, the Philippines has neither law nor rules, nor any effective regulatory framework for monitoring or even recovering taxes possibly due from monies in these accounts.

Split opinion
Also, between former and current finance officials, there is a split opinion on what the Philippine government should do to regulate such accounts and to run after their owners.

Interviewed recently by PCIJ, former Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Jacinto-Henares said that in her view, when someone or some entity opens an offshore account, that should raise concern at once among government officials.

In contrast, Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez — who admits his connection to an offshore account himself until 2001 – told PCIJ that “there is nothing illegal per se about these accounts… and we are not about to declare them illegal”.

“Actually,” Henares said, “nobody can stop you from incorporating anywhere in the world.” But, she said, “the question is if that company has an asset that matches (its) net worth.”

She pointed out, “The important thing to ask is if the tax for that had been paid, and second, did it come from questionable deals. Kasi ‘yung galing sa masama rin, hindi mo rin binabayaran ‘yung buwis (Because if it came from something illegal, you wouldn’t pay the tax due).”

Why hide monies?

Henares continued: “Ibig sabihin, hindi mo siya maipasok mainly sa pangalan mo kasi hindi mo ma-explain saan nanggaling ‘yung income, saan galing ‘yung pera. ‘Yun lang naman ‘yung tinatanong d’yan, pero itself, wala namang problema (In other words, you couldn’t place it under your name because you won’t be able to explain where the income was sourced, where the money came from. That’s really the only question there, but itself, there’s no problem).”

It’s a question, according to her, of what would drive someone or some entity to open an offshore account. “Siyempre, medyo may tanong lang na ano bang objective mo (Of course, there’s a bit of a question there on what really your objective is),” Henares said. “Parang lahat ng tao feeling nila na kapag Pilipino ka, naiisahan mo ‘yung gobyerno mo. Bakit mo ginagawa ‘yan? (So everyone starts feeling like, if you’re a Filipino, you can easily put one over your government. Why do you do that?)”

‘No law, not illegal’
Dominguez takes the contrary view. Indeed, he said that there is no clear, cogent legal framework to regulate offshore accounts, but getting one “would require legislation by Congress.”

At the moment, he said, “we’re all focused on the tax reform bill until December.”

“But really,” Dominguez said, “there is nothing illegal per se about Filipinos or Philippine residents opening accounts overseas.” Still, he said that “when information like this comes out, then we look at it case by case.”

“In truth, there is nothing illegal about it,” Dominguez said. “It is legal, and we are not about to declare it illegal.” He then cited one instance when he was told that a friend of his staff had planned to open a dollar account in Hong Kong to buy bitcoins. Recalled Dominguez: “I told her, ‘Go ahead, that’s okay’.”

These comments by the Finance Secretary came on the fourth time that PCIJ had called him in the last month, to follow up on a request letter for an official opinion on offshore accounts from his department.

PCIJ mailed its letter to Dominguez last November 8, prompting a quick call from him; at the time, though, he was still in Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (APEC).

Working group promise
He promised then that he would organise a technical working group of his staff, as well as officials of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and — if they would agree, he said — of the Bangko Sentral and the Anti-Money Laundering Council.

The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit intervened and kept Dominguez busy for a week. He received PCIJ’s second and third calls during the week, however.

Last November 16, he said, “My staff will write you a letter. We discussed this yesterday. There is no law prohibiting anyone from opening offshore accounts. It’s allowed by law.” Offshore accounts “may be a tax leak for us,” Dominguez said, “but it is a small leak.”

He added that offshore accounts are a lesser problem than tax incentives that some companies and sectors have been enjoying for so long. “We have a list of tax incentives given, and you’d be surprised how big those amounts are,” Dominguez said. “Some have been receiving tax benefits for over 40 years.”

Tax leakage on account of incentives given to corporations is, in Dominguez’s view, “a more important issue than someone buying, registering a plane or cargo vessel — that is a one-off thing.”

In an offshore leaks database reported in 2013, Dominguez’s name had actually come up as an offshore account holder. The company listed in his name was called Radstock Corp.

Connection admitted
When PCIJ asked Dominguez about this, he promptly acknowledged his connection with Radstock.

“I saw that before,” he said. “I was involved with them a long time ago, 2001 ‘ata.” As he recalled it, his engagement as a director of Radstock was connected with a project of the Philippine National Construction Corporation.

Like Dominguez, many other finance experts say that offshore accounts are legal. They also note that these are rather common among multinational enterprises with global operations.

Yet when account holders turn to tax havens offshore to avoid or evade paying taxes, hide illicit wealth, and conduct illegitimate or abusive financial flows in secret, they cross over to forbidden territory in law.

Evade, avoid taxes
International companies, finance experts say, operate in tax havens to be able to transfer the taxable income to jurisdictions where tax rates are lower. Companies that make profits in the Philippines, for instance, can transfer these to other jurisdictions. This means that what should have been part of the tax base of the Philippines becomes instead part of that of another country.

Tax havens also use secrecy as a prime tool to hide identities. Individuals and entities can hold shares in offshore companies without being identified, unlike in the Philippines where incorporation and registration records are public.

Too, one can sell shares offshore without having to pay capital-gains tax.

Secrecy jurisdictions provide structures that enable people or entities to skirt or undermine laws of their home country or jurisdictions elsewhere. In the Philippines, the lack of a legal and regulatory regime over offshore accounts makes it difficult for government to run after tax evaders and money launderers.

According to the Tax Justice Network, between $21 trillion and $32 trillion of private financial wealth is located, untaxed or lightly taxed, in tax havens around the world. Illicit cross-border financial flows have also been pegged at $1 trillion to $1.6 trillion per year, a huge amount compared to the $142.6 billion in global foreign aid in 2016.

Founded in 2003, Tax Justice Network or TJN is a UK-based independent international network that conducts research, analysis, and advocacy on international tax, the international aspects of financial regulation, the impact of tax evasion, tax avoidance, tax “competition,” and tax havens. Not aligned with any political party, TJN has global and regional partners in Africa, Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America.

TJN has a Financial Secrecy Index that ranks jurisdictions according to their secrecy and the scale of their offshore financial activities. The higher the rank, the more secretive financial activities are in the country.

The scoring is based on an assessment of 15 secrecy indicators that can be grouped around four broad dimensions of secrecy: knowledge of beneficial ownership, corporate transparency, efficiency of tax and financial regulation, and international standards and cooperation.

Of the 92 countries surveyed by TJN for its 2015 Index, Bermuda was ranked No. 34 and Isle of Man at No. 32. The Philippines was 46th. Switzerland, Hong Kong, and the United States are first, second, and third, respectively.

The Financial Secrecy Index reveals that the stereotypes of tax havens are misconceived. Said TJN: “The world’s most important providers of financial secrecy harbouring looted assets are mostly not small, palm-fringed islands as many suppose, but some of the world’s biggest and wealthiest.”

Wanted: Evidence
As of this posting, PCIJ has yet to receive a written reply from Dominguez himself, or even from the “technical working group” that he said he plans to convene to study the matter of offshore accounts.

He tossed PCIJ’s query letter to Finance Undersecretary Antonette C. Tionko, who recently replied to PCIJ. She said in part that they had “gone through the attached list which contains names of Filipinos and a few foreign corporations which appear to have Philippine ownership (although this is not clear considering that only the name of said corporations are provided).”

“Please note,” Tionko said in her letter dated November 22, “that under Philippine tax laws, income of Filipino citizens are subject to Philippine income tax regardless of where earned. On the other hand, only income of foreign corporations from Philippine sources is subject to Philippine income tax.

“Hence, if we assume that the listed corporations are all foreign corporations, evidence must be presented… that income is earned and not reported in the Philippines to constitute a violation of the Tax Code.”

She then asked for “further information” on the Filipinos on the Paradise Papers list. According to Tionko, information “such as purported types of investments, amounts of said investments, and the like will be relevant in determining whether or not there is a violation of Philippine laws.”

Global vs local firms
To Henares, meanwhile, big companies and top taxpayers who have offshore ties are not suspect. She is more concerned, she said, about those on the list who have no global business or reason to have offshore companies.

Asked Henares: “If you have no international corporation, then what are you doing there?”

Henares said that she welcomes having more information into offshore transactions primarily because without information and appropriate regulations, governments have no way of running after tax evaders who hide their wealth offshore.

The BIR, with Henares at the helm, had set to investigate Filipinos with offshore accounts following PCIJ’s 2013 report. But Henares said she could not recall updates on the planned investigation.

When contacted by PCIJ on the matter, BIR Assistant Commissioner Marissa Cabreros said that the Bureau cannot confirm or deny any information about it because its staff are bound by law to keep silent.

In any case, Henares said that the country’s strict bank secrecy law in a way already offers “a domestic haven” for people who may want to hide their cash assets. Tax havens offshore meanwhile offer options for people who may want to hide their ownership of properties.

“Let’s say,” she said, “without knowing how much they have in the bank, we already know they’re deficient by P1 million. What more if we have that bank figure? It would be much, much more ‘di ba? Then what more if we have the information about the international (accounts)? Then it could become much, much more din.”

Information exchange
The OECD Global Forum for Tax Transparency was specifically set up to address the risks to tax compliance posed by secrecy jurisdictions. Global Forum members, among them the Philippines, had agreed to implement transparency and exchange of information for tax purposes. This includes the Exchange of Information on Request (EOIR) and the Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information (AEOI), which requires tax administrations to exchange taxpayers’ financial information.

Henares clarified, however, that the Philippines is involved only in the EOIR, which allows the BIR to exchange information only with a country that the Philippines has a tax treaty with.

The Philippines was reviewed as “largely compliant” in the first round of the EOIR review. But it currently has treaties with 41 countries only; it has no tax treaty with many of the popular tax havens.

The OECD and the Council of Europe also developed the Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which is said to be the “most comprehensive multilateral instrument available for all forms of tax co-operation to tackle tax evasion and avoidance.”

The convention not only provides for exchange of information, but also includes assistance in recovery, the service of documents, and facilitation of joint audits.

The Philippines signed onto the agreement in 2014 but has yet to ratify it.

The article was published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and is republished here with permission.

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