MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine appeals court has upheld a decision that an online news site critical of President Rodrigo Duterte violated a constitutional ban on foreign ownership of news media.

The Court of Appeals said in a decision made public Monday that Rappler, the news site, effectively allowed U.S.-based investor Omidyar Network “to participate” in its corporate actions and decisions in violation of the constitution, which requires media companies to be fully owned and managed by Filipinos.

Rappler argued that it did not grant Omidyar the power to control or influence its news operations, but last year, the appeals court backed a Securities and Exchange Commission decision to revoke the site’s license.

Media watchdogs have said the move was an act to muzzle the media.

The Omidyar Network was co-founded by Hawaii billionaire Pierre Omidyar, a philanthropist and founder of eBay.  Omidyar is also the CEO and publisher of Honolulu Civil Beat.

Maria Ressa, center, the award-winning head of a Philippine online news site Rappler, listens to a reporter's question after posting bail at a Regional Trial Court following an overnight arrest by National Bureau of Investigation agents on a libel case Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 in Manila, Philippines. Ressa was freed on bail Thursday after her arrest in a libel case. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Maria Ressa, center, the award-winning head of the Philippine online news site Rappler, after posting bail at a Regional Trial Court following her arrest in February in a libel case.

AP

While upholding its ruling against Rappler, the appeals court asked the SEC to reassess its revocation of the news website’s operating license after Omidyar donated its holdings in Rappler to some of the site’s managers and staff.

“It is incumbent upon the SEC to evaluate the terms and conditions of said alleged supervening donation … whether the same has the effect of mitigating, if not curing, the violation it found,” the court said.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the government would not interfere in the case and “will let the law take its course.” He said Rappler’s case was not a press freedom issue.

Last month, Rappler’s chief executive officer and executive editor, Maria Ressa, was arrested but freed on bail over an online libel case.

The move against Ressa, who was one of Time magazine’s Persons of the Year last year, was denounced by Rappler and media watchdogs as a threat to press freedom. Duterte’s government said the arrest was a normal step in response to a criminal complaint.

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