National Press Club: We're not puppets of the Palace

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National Press Club President Paul Gutierrez (file)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 2) — National Press Club (NPC) President Paul Gutierrez shrugged off claims that the media group, which supports the Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC) ruling to revoke the business registration of online news outlet Rappler, has close ties with the Duterte administration.

"I'm also being bashed for being a puppet of the Palace," he told CNN Philippines "On the Record" on Thursday. "It's because maybe I go against the general sentiment of various media groups in the country."

On Jan. 18, the NPC issued a statement expressing its support for the SEC decision on the Rappler case, which it said is no threat to press freedom.

Read: National Press Club supports SEC ruling vs. Rappler

"Responsible journalism also means complying with the law," Gutierrez said in the statement. "To say that the fate of one media entity found to have run afoul with the law translates to media repression in the country is stretching the argument a bit too much."

The SEC said Rappler engaged in fraud and circumvented the constitutional ban on foreign ownership in media by accepting over $1 million (around P50 million) from a foreign investor, Omidyar Network, in the form of Philippine Depositary Receipts or PDRs.

Read: SEC cancels Rappler's license to do business

However, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa said on Jan. 15 that Omidyar's PDRs did not give it voting rights, ownership nor control of the company, but only financial returns.

Ressa and other media groups claim the SEC decision is an attack on press freedom.

Read: Media, human rights groups slam SEC closure order vs. Rappler

But Gutierrez said it is just a matter of Rappler violating the law.

"I'm really surprised because some media groups are suddenly saying that what happened to Rappler is a violation of press freedom," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's not. If one media entity is found to be at fault with the law, then how can that be a violation of press freedom when there are thousands of media entities in the Philippines?"

Gutierrez added that when President Rodrigo Duterte blamed media killings on corrupt journalists, the NPC was among the first groups to condemn the President.

Read: Duterte blames corrupt journalism for media killings

Statement 'too fast'

But Melinda Quintos De Jesus — Executive Director of non-profit media group Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, which supports Rappler — told "On the Record" that the NPC's statement on Rappler may have been premature.

"There was no attempt, Paul, it seemed to me, to have reflected the side of Rappler and how they were trying to address the issues that were raised with them with the SEC," she said. "So I thought that was a little too fast, perhaps, on your part."

De Jesus noted how Rappler and other media outlets critical of the government have been targeted by Duterte.

"The threatening of journalists, the calling out against journalists, the name-calling, the insults," she said. "Things were always being found where the organizations that were being targeted could not present their side because it is difficult to present their side once you have created an environment of hostility."

Besides Rappler, Duterte has singled out newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer and media conglomerate ABS-CBN, which have both been critical of the administration.

Related: Sociologist: Duterte's media criticism has grave implications on news practice

On Jan. 16, the President threatened to file a plunder case against the Prieto family, the former owners of the Inquirer, for allegedly failing to pay billions of pesos in taxes.

Meanwhile, the President has frequently criticized ABS-CBN for allegedly biased coverage and for not running his ads during the 2016 presidential campaign.

De Jesus said the so-called environment of hostility is a result of Duterte's great popularity, particularly the "avid support" he gets on social media.

"Social media, however, that has been used to troll the press, to question the credibility of the press," she said.

Meanwhile, Ressa told "On the Record" that the issue goes beyond Rappler's legal troubles.

"I echo Melinda that I think, it's the pattern," she said. "Forget Rappler. Let's just look at the pattern of online, State-sponsored hate that has actually plagued us since mid-2016."