NBI subpoenas Rappler CEO, 2 others over cybercrime complaint

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 18) — In the wake of a government order to shut down online news agency Rappler, authorities subpoenaed the company's head and two others over a supposed violation of the cybercrime law.

In subpoenas dated Jan. 10, and released to the media on Thursday, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. and businessman Benjamin Bitanga were ordered to appear before the NBI's Cybercrime Division on Jan. 22 over a complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng.

The NBI said Keng, president and CEO of Century Peak Metals Holdings Corporation, filed the complaints against the three for violating Republic Act 10175 or the "Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012."

Ressa told CNN Philippines on Thursday she has yet to receive a copy of the subpoena, but is not surprised by the NBI's order.

"It really solidifies that the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) decision of an attack to take Rappler down and an attack on press freedom," she said. "I'll read it through. I'll have to take the advice of my lawyers. Regardless of the harassment, we're going to continue doing our jobs."

In a Thursday report, Rappler said although Bitanga is an incorporator of Dolphin Fire, a shareholder in Rappler Holdings, Inc., he does not sit on the board of media unit Rappler, Inc.

"Either there's bad research or there's something else that they're following," Ressa said.

The black Suburban

Santos named Keng in his report published on Rappler in May 2012.

The story stated Keng lent his black Chevrolet Suburban, with license plate ZWK-111, to then Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Santos said Corona was seen using the vehicle during his impeachment trial at the Senate in 2012, as well as in "official and non-official functions" in 2011.

The Senate convicted Corona in 2012 after he was impeached for misdeclarations in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth. He died in April 2016 due to a lingering illness.

Read: Former Chief Justice Renato Corona dies

Santos also said that according to an intelligence report, Keng was under surveillance by the National Security Council for alleged involvement in illegal activities, namely "human trafficking and drug smuggling," and for being involved in a murder case for which he was "never jailed."

In the Rappler story, Keng admitted he owned a black Suburban, but denied that Corona used it.

Legal troubles

A day after the subpoena was issued, the SEC issued an order that revoked the company's business registration. A copy of the order was released to the media on Monday.

Read: SEC cancels Rappler's license to do business

The SEC order states 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.

However, Ressa said on Monday that Omidyar's PDRs did not give it voting rights, ownership nor control of Rappler, but only financial returns.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre on Wednesday ordered the NBI to investigate Rappler for possible violation of the Constitution.

Read: NBI to investigate Rappler for possible violation of Constitution

Palace harassment?

Rappler has been highly critical of the Duterte administration, with Ressa saying on Tuesday that the Palace had a hand in the SEC decision.

Read: Rappler sees Malacañang hand in license revocation

But President Rodrigo Duterte said on Tuesday he had nothing to with the SEC decision, and insisted that Rappler had foreign owners.

Read: Duterte: I had nothing to do with SEC's ruling on Rappler

Duterte also slammed Rappler for running a story alleging that Special Assistant to the President Bong Go was involved in a controversial purchase of warships.

Read: Officials deny Bong Go's involvement in frigate acquisition project

"The things that you are telling here never happened. 'Pag magtanggap kami ng ganun, ipasa namin doon sa proper [If we receive anything we pass it on to the proper] — if it's the Justice Department, it goes to the Justice Department. If the subject matter here is about transportation, it goes to Tugade," he said.

Duterte dared Rappler to give evidence of the allegation within 24 hours.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a Thursday press briefing that a Malacañang investigation found Go innocent.

Read: Roque: Palace done 'investigating' SAP Bong Go, no evidence seen in 24 hours

"The challenge was for Rappler to come up with its evidence within 24 hours and the President can fire Bong Go," he said. "Twenty-four hours expired, nothing, nothing by way of actual evidence."