Employees of online portal Rappler work at their editorial office in Manila on January 15, 2018. The website is among news outlets that have been targeted by cyberattacks. (AFP/Ted Aljibe)

Three Philippine media outlets face latest in a string of cyberattacks

Three Philippine news websites, ABS-CBN News, Rappler, and Vera Files, publicized separate distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks between December 11 and 23, 2021. The attacks flood websites with requests to prevent them from functioning, and the sites were periodically forced offline by huge spikes in traffic coinciding with political news coverage.

All three sites have been openly critical of the Duterte regime. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines released a statement condemning the attacks and called for an investigation.

It’s not clear who was behind the incidents. Citing Qurium Media Foundation, a Swedish nonprofit that hosts several Philippine news websites, Rappler reported that the attacks were escalating in severity and appeared to be coordinated, possibly by a hired service. CPJ was not able to reach anyone at the three sites who could provide more detail.

ABS-CBN News reported an attack on December 11 that shut down parts of the website for around six hours. On December 15, Rappler separately said its website was repeatedly taken offline after more than 6 billion requests to its network. Traffic first increased on a page displaying a story on the Philippine Senate’s greenlight of a bill that would allow 100% foreign ownership of public services, then the homepage, it reported.

Vera Files, a news outlet and fact-checking site, reported it was temporarily taken offline on December 16. Citing an analysis by website security service Deflect, that report said unusual traffic was detected on pages hosting certain reports, including one about political lobbying related to electronic cigarettes, and two fact checking social media posts connected to Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos who is running for president in the national election scheduled in May. Rappler and Vera Files are part of a fact-checking agreement with Facebook.

Rappler reported a second attack driving traffic to 1 million requests per second on December 23, slowing the site’s performance. ABS-CBN noted on Facebook that its site was briefly down the same day but did not elaborate.

The journalists’ union reported similar incidents affecting news websites earlier in 2021; Qurium also investigated a series of attacks in 2018 and 2019 and concluded they were politically motivated and originated in the Philippines.