Washington, D.C., April 24, 2019 -- The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed concern over Philippines President Roderigo Duterte providing information to The Manila Times, a local daily, alleging that media and legal groups orchestrated a "plot" to discredit and oust him.
"Unsubstantiated allegations of a plot against Philippines President Roderigo Duterte relayed by the president himself create an immediate danger for critical journalists," said Steven Butler, CPJ's Asia program coordinator. "The Duterte government needs to recognize that critical journalism is a key component of a healthy democracy, not evidence of a subversive plot."
On April 22, The Manila Times published an article alleging a conspiracy to oust the president by news website Rappler, independent fact-checking organization Verafiles, investigative reporting outlet the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and human rights organization the Philippines National Union of People's Lawyers. The article specifically mentioned Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, winner of CPJ's 2018 Gwen Ifill award, and Sheila Coronel, a board member of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism who is also a senior adviser and former board member of CPJ.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo confirmed that Duterte was the newspaper's source, according to the transcript of an April 22 press briefing seen by CPJ. The author of the Manila Times article is the chairman emeritus of that paper and Duterte's "special envoy for international public relations."
The article alleged that the organizations' "playbook" involved publishing fake news, arousing public anger, manipulating public opinion, working with leftist organizations, and ultimately staging a "coup" against the president.
In Manila this week, several journalists told CPJ they were concerned that these accusations could lead to charges against the organizations on national security grounds, potentially resulting in arrests or jail time without the possibility of bail for journalists and activists.
According to the press briefing transcript, the president's spokesperson said there are no plans for legal action against those named by The Manila Times. "We just want them to know that we know; and we want the people to know that they are on this," Panelo said, according to the transcript.
Rappler and its executives have faced a myriad of libel, tax, and regulatory lawsuits, and has paid an estimated 2 million pesos ($38,260) in bail and bonds as of March 29, 2019, according to the news website. Ressa has been arrested twice this year, CPJ has documented, although she has been released on bail and has been able to travel internationally after posting bond.