New Australia envoy on Rappler cases: We’re watching closely

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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New Australia envoy on Rappler cases: We’re watching closely
Freedom of the press 'is a fundamental part of any democracy,' says Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson

MANILA, Philippines – Australia’s new ambassador to the Philippines, Steven Robinson, said Australia is “closely” watching the legal processes faced by Filipino news website Rappler, as he stressed that freedom of the press is fundamental in any democracy.

Robinson made these remarks in his first reception for Filipino journalists on Thursday, April 4, after this reporter asked him about his views on threats to press freedom in the Philippines. Robinson said he “can understand, given you’re from Rappler, what you’re alluding to.”

“We’ve stood with the Philippines for a long time in terms of our values and our approach to international law, and therefore freedom of the press, freedom of expression, is a fundamental part of any democracy,” Robinson said during the reception held at his Makati City residence.

“So therefore we’re watching what is happening in the current time, together with a range of countries around the world,” Robinson said.

He continued: “And I can understand, given you’re from Rappler, what you’re alluding to, and this legal process is in play, and what we’ve said is that we’re watching those legal processes closely, and we’d like to see those resolved as quickly as possible.”

“But at the end of the day, values and approach to human rights, and approach to freedom of the press, and freedom of expression, are fundamental,” he said.

Robinson formally began his work as ambassador to the Philippines on January 15, when he presented his credentials to President Rodrigo Duterte.

The reception on Thursday – beginning with a press briefing at sunset and ending with a barbecue dinner in the ambassador’s garden – was his first major engagement with the Filipino press.

Duterte ‘since and genuine’

At the same reception, Robinson was asked about the lessons imparted by his predecessor, Amanda Gorely, in dealing with  Duterte. 

The previous Australian ambassador had a rough start with Duterte, after she once criticized Duterte’s rape joke about an Australian missionary. Duterte, who made this joke when he was campaigning for president, even threatened to cut ties with Australia if he won the presidency. 

But Duterte and Gorely, a career diplomat, eventually got along, with the Philippine leader even visiting a large Australian ship in October 2017 and conferring on Gorely the Order of Sikatuna with the rank of Grand Cross, silver distinction, in November 2018 as she ended her tour of duty

Robinson on Thursday, instead of discussing lessons he learned from Gorely, jumped off from his own experience with Duterte. 

The ambassador said he has met Duterte 3 times, and the last time he met the President “was at the Bangsamoro commemoration,” where he “was one of about 4 ambassadors to do so.” He said this was held in Malacañang on a Friday afternoon around a month ago.

During the event, Robinson said Duterte spoke “most eloquently and passionately” about the situation in Mindanao. “What he said was about being a Mindanaoan and about how long and how he focused on trying to resolve the issues down south.” He said he found the speech “sincere and genuine.”

Robinson then recounted a scene with Duterte that surprised him. “He came across to the diplomats there, we were sitting away, at the back of the room, and he came across to us and said, ‘I would not be doing my job as President if I did not come across and say thank you to you for being here.’ He didn’t have to do that, and I was very struck by that.”

“That made me think a lot about the President, and what does that mean for the future? And many people have said to me that they find the President to be sincere and passionate. I’ve now experienced that, so I believe that to be true. So when I’m going to engage with him next, it’s going to be with those thoughts in mind,” Robinson said. 

Career diplomat

Born in 1959, Robinson is a senior career officer who has served in Jakarta, Yangon, and Bangkok, and has held senior positions in Canberra.

A bachelor of arts and diplomat in education graduate from the University of Sydney, Robinson specializes in Southeast Asia. He is married and has two children.

During his tour of duty, Robinson said he wants to boost trade between the Philippines and Australia, even as he stresses Australia’s global priorities, such as upholding international law in the disputed South China Sea and promoting freedom of expression.

In the case of press freedom, his comments come at a time when this is under threat in the Philippines.

Since 2018, under Duterte’s watch, 11 cases and complaints have been filed against Rappler, forcing the news company to pay at least P2 million ($38,330) in bail and travel bonds. Just a day before Robinson was asked about press freedom in the Philippines, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa pleaded not guilty in her arraignment at the Court of Tax Appeals over 4 tax-related cases. 

Rappler, as well as local and international news groups, view these cases as threats to press freedom in the Philippines, as the Duterte administration blasts the news website for its critical coverage of the government’s bloody war on drugs. 

Robinson is the latest diplomat to comment on the cases filed against Rappler. 

On March 29, the US State Department urged the Philippine government to allow Rappler and Ressa “to continue to operate freely.” A month earlier, on February 14, the US embassy in Manila stressed the need for due process in Ressa’s cyber libel case, one of the legal processes she is facing. 

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said on February 14 that she was “deeply troubled” that Ressa was arrested, while British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on the same day that he is “deeply concerned by Maria Ressa’s arrest.” –

*$1 = P52.16

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email