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A member of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines has her mouth covered with duct tape during a protest outside the presidential palace in Metro Manila, Philippines January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco(reuters_tickers)
By Manuel Mogato and Martin Petty
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines' justice department ordered investigations on Wednesday into possible criminal liability of Rappler, a news site known for challenging the government that has been dubbed a "fake news outlet" by the country's controversial president.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced on Monday it had revoked Rappler's licence for violating the constitution's restrictions on foreign ownership of media, ruling that one of its American investors had the power to influence its operations, despite not owning any shares.
Rappler is permitted to continue operating pending appeal, but the SEC decision prompted outrage among human rights and media groups, which accused President Rodrigo Duterte of punishing Rappler for its reporting. Duterte has denied that and his aides say media freedom is not under attack.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre said Rappler had clearly broken an anti-dummy law under existing corporate regulations, so it was necessary for it to be thoroughly investigated by the department for other violations.
"We are going to see if there are other laws violated by anybody in connection with this decision of SEC," Aguirre told reporters at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new justice facility on Wednesday.
According to a department order seen by Reuters, Aguirre also granted the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) the authority on Wednesday to investigate and build a case against Rappler "and if evidence warrants, to file the appropriate cases against those found liable".
Rappler's acting managing editor, Chay Hofilena, described it as "a fishing expedition, and pure and simple harassment."
"It's all the more clear and blatant what the government's agenda is: they're dead-set to get Rappler and kill press freedom."
DISLIKED BY DUTERTE
Aguirre's order contradicts other government officials, who have insisted the administration is not going after Rappler.
The government says the SEC, an independent body, initiated the investigation into Rappler's ownership, but the SEC has confirmed that it was acting on the request of Solicitor General Jose Calida, a close associate of Duterte.
Duterte on Tuesday furiously rejected suggestions that he had influenced the SEC's decision and took aim at Rappler for what he called fake news and stories "pregnant with falsity".
Aguirre said the president had no hand in the legal action the justice department was taking, insisting it was its job to prosecute when criminal or civil cases came its way.
Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa told news channel ANC earlier on Wednesday that it was "ludicrous" to say that one of its two American investors, Omidyar Network, created by eBay founder and entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar, had any control over the news site, or veto powers on company decisions.
Rappler said its filings to the SEC in 2015 made clear that just like several other media outlets, foreigners had invested in some of its Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDR), but did not own any shares, or have a say in operations.
Presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo said the SEC case against Rappler was not part of a strategy of Duterte to stifle dissent.
"He doesn't hate criticism. What he hates or reacts against is false information or news," Panelo told ANC.
(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)