Even among that cast of illiberal leaders who rouse mobs with their ruthless policies and disdain for democratic protections, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines stands out for his viciousness. He has effectively declared open season on those he and his minions accuse of being drug users and dealers, at least 4,000 of whom have been killed by the police and vigilantes since he came to office.
Exposing such brazen abuse of power is a hallowed mission of a free press, so it should come as no surprise that authoritarians like Mr. Duterte usually go after independent media. One particularly tenacious critic of the president’s vicious crackdown has been a leading online news site, Rappler, and on Monday the government announced that it was revoking its license.
Rappler has appealed the decision of the Securities and Exchange Commission of the Philippines, and in the meantime the website can continue to operate. The time would be well used by other governments and nongovernmental supporters of democracy to condemn this effort to silence independent voices.
Of course, Mr. Duterte should be condemned first and foremost for his blatant violations of human rights. But the ability of a democracy to repair the damage caused by bad leaders requires the survival of critical democratic institutions, a free press among them.
Like other populists sitting in presidential palaces around the world, and there are lamentably many today, Mr. Duterte had, at least until recently, enjoyed solid support, in his case from an electorate that has endured too much crime and corruption. An independent press is essential to explain why mass extrajudicial killings cannot be the right answer and to prepare the way for the restoration of the rule of law.
The action against Rappler is only the tip of Mr. Duterte’s assault on his media critics. His supporters have also made the Philippines a swamp of fake news, conspiracy theories and online harassment. Mr. Duterte has refused to condemn the flood and has denied any involvement in its creation. Predictably, he also denied that the revocation of Rappler’s license was political, and he said he didn’t care whether or not Rappler continued to operate.