New govt attack on critical Philippine website

Philippine news outlet Rappler is known for its extensive reportage of President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-narcotics campaign

Philippine authorities opened on Thursday a fresh line of attack against a news outlet that has angered President Rodrigo Duterte, after the website's investors moved to block a separate government effort to shut it down.

The nation's tax authority said it filed criminal charges against Rappler, which has been critical of Duterte's deadly war on drugs, alleging the site failed to pay taxes on bonds it sold in 2015.

The government's move comes just over a week after Silicon Valley investment firm Omidyar Network said it was transferring its roughly $1.5-million investment in Rappler to the site's local managers to stave off Duterte's effort to shut it down.

The investment is at the heart of a case that led to the Philippines' corporate watchdog to void the news site's corporate license in January, saying it violated a law against non-Filipinos owning any share of local media entities. Rappler has appealed.

A statement from the Philippine tax bureau on Thursday accused Rappler of failing to pay taxes on bond instruments -- called Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) -- worth about 18.6 million pesos ($1.6 million) that the news site sold in 2015.

"It is clear there is motive that goes beyond a normal tax audit. Unless of course, the intent is to harass and intimidate Rappler," said the site's chief executive Maria Ressa.

The website is known for its extensive reportage of Duterte's anti-narcotics campaign, which police say has claimed over 4,100 lives but which rights monitors say has left 12,000 dead.

Duterte has banned a Rappler reporter from covering his official activities, saying its reports were "twisted".

"The government has vast resources and we are a very small company and we will continue to fight as long as we can," Ressa said.

Commenting on the tax case, Duterte spokesman Harry Roque told reporters: "The law must be enforced. If they have not paid taxes, then they must be called to account."

Duterte has also attacked other media outfits that criticise him, including top newspaper, The Philippine Daily Inquirer and major broadcaster ABS-CBN, threatening to also go after their owners over alleged unpaid taxes of loans.

A previous "cyber-libel" case filed against Rappler in January was dismissed a month later.