Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday he "did not give a shit" as his government moved to shut down a news website that has been critical in its reporting on his deadly drug war, with media watchdogs raising fears over eroding freedoms.
The country's corporate regulator revoked the incorporation papers for Rappler on Monday accusing the online portal of ceding control to foreign investors in an industry exclusively reserved for Filipinos.
At a rambling speech to aviation industry officials Tuesday, Duterte singled out a Rappler reporter, saying: "I never had a hand, and I don't give a shit if you continue or not continue with your network".
The fiery 72-year-old said the Rappler sanction was not his own doing, then went on to accuse unnamed sectors of the media of "attacking us below the belt".
"You've gone too far. You didn't stop at (hurling) garbage and even used the spoils of the toilet bowl. Then I realised you are not saints," he said.
"In this country the issue is not press freedom. The issue is abuse of the elite and those in power," Duterte continued, accusing "oligarchs" of using media ownership as cover to steal from the government or cheat on taxes.
Rappler, founded in 2012, has produced reports critical of Duterte's government, including its centrepiece drug war that has claimed thousands of lives and which has drawn criticism of alleged extrajudicial killings.
Duterte vowed last year to expose Rappler's "American ownership", while suggesting the US Central Intelligence Agency funded the outfit.
The government doubled down on the ruling Tuesday, with the justice department saying it was studying whether Rappler should now be prosecuted.
"If a law has been violated, then we will file the necessary charges," Justice Undersecretary Erickson Balmes told AFP.
- 'Attack on media' -
Earlier Tuesday, Duterte spokesman Harry Roque dismissed allegations the president was personally behind the regulatory action against Rappler or that he was threatening press freedom.
"If the president wanted to do that he could just have sent the armed forces to their offices and padlocked them, which has been done by other regimes. The president has never done that," Roque told reporters.
The case concerns the website's parent Rappler Holdings' issuance of Philippine depositary receipts for Rappler shares that the government said were sold to a foreign fund.
In Monday's ruling, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said Rappler had given the foreign fund veto powers in exchange for the investment in an industry that the Philippine constitution limits to Filipino entities.
Rappler maintains the securities did not constitute equity nor give the investors veto on editorial matters and has vowed to appeal the ruling.
Rights groups and media watchdogs have condemned the move as the latest salvo in a series of attacks on critical media.
"The order to close Rappler amounts to a direct assault on freedom of the press in the Philippines," Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator for US-based monitor the Committee to Protect Journalists said.
Duterte has also publicly attacked other media outlets including the Philippine Daily Inquirer and leading television broadcaster ABS-CBN, whose application for a franchise renewal he threatened to block.
The corporate regulator said the verdict would take effect in two weeks, while Rappler announced it would continue operating while appealing against the ruling in court.
"I will do everything in my power not to let Rappler go down," Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa told CNN Philippines on Tuesday.
Press organisations in Hong Kong, Thailand and the Philippines all released statements urging the government to reverse the ruling.
"The order for Rappler to be shut down is part of a broader trend by Duterte to silence his critics," Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club said in a statement.