Philippine authorities on Wednesday, 13 February, arrested award-winning Filipino journalist Maria Ressa on charges of cyber libel. Ressa, who is the founder-editor of the online news portal Rappler, is known for her fight against fake news and open criticism of Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte.
According to a statement released by Rappler, officials of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) on Wednesday afternoon served her a warrant, following which she was escorted to NBI headquarters.
The procession was live-streamed by journalists working at the news portal, despite the agency’s denial of permission to capture photographs or videos.
"We are not intimidated. No amount of legal cases, black propaganda, and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line," Ressa said in a statement. "These legal acrobatics show how far the government will go to silence journalists, including the pettiness of forcing me to spend the night in jail."
Libel Charges Against Ressa on 5 Feb
The libel charges against Ressa were pressed on 5 February by the Department of Justice (which heads NBI) for an article published in 2012, allegedly containing “defamatory” content, The Guardian reported.
The Department of Justice had ordered the indictment of Rappler, Ressa, and former reporter and author of the article, Reynaldo Santos Jr, over a contentious story uncovering businessman Wilfredo Keng’s alleged ties to a then-judge on the nation’s top court, the report added.
The charges carry a sentence of up to 12 years in jail. Ressa was previously charged for tax fraud in November 2018.
International Organisations Condemn Ressa’s Arrest
Following Ressa’s arrest, in a letter addressed to President Rodrigo Duterte, international media watchdogs, World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the World Editors Forum expressed concern over the prosecution of Ressa.
“We are seriously concerned that the charges are politically motivated and form part of a systematic campaign by the government to use the law as a weapon to silence Rappler’s reporting, which has often been critical of your presidency,” the letter noted.
The organisations also highlighted the “absurdity” of the arrest, stating that charging Ressa for an article that came out before the Cybercrime Prevention Act came into force, risked making the Act itself “unconstitutional” as it would be an “ex post facto law”.
Reacting individually to Ressa's arrest, Vincent Peyregne, Chief Executive Officer of WAN-IFRA and Dave Callaway, President of the World Editors Forum called the incident an "outrageous escalation"
"This is an outrageous escalation in a growing war on the free press globally and specifically against a brave journalist," said Callaway.
“This is a despicable escalation in what is already an outrageous charge. Maria Ressa and Rappler have been under a sustained, politically motivated legal assault for years now, simply for doing their job of holding power to account.”Vincent Peyregne, CEO of WAN-IFRA
“This latest attempt to prosecute Rappler for ‘cyber libel’ under legislation that was not even enacted when the alleged libellous article was published is simply absurd. If the case goes ahead – against the advice of the NIB’s own legal team – then it sets a dangerous precedent that will send a chilling message to all online publishers. We call for Maria’s immediate release, for the cyber libel case to be struck out, and for the harassment against her and Rappler to end, once and for all,” Vincent added.
Senior Research Fellow at Reuters Institute and author of 2017 UNESCO's ‘Protecting Journalism Sources in the Digital Age’, Julie Posetti also took it to Twitter, expressing shock over Ressa's arrest.
‘A Shameless Act of Persecution by a Bully Government’
Amnesty International had previously condemned the charges pressed against Ressa as “brazenly politically motivated”.
In another statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines condemned the arrest of Ressa as “a shameless act of persecution by a bully government”.
"This government, led by a man who has proven averse to criticism and dissent, now proves it will go to ridiculous lengths to forcibly silence a critical media and stifle free expression and thought," the statement read.
(With inputs from Associate Press and The Guardian)
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