Arrest of 2018 TIME Person of the Year sparks international outrage, questions about press freedom
ONE day after her arrest for “cyber libel” charges, Filipina journalist Maria Ressa of Rappler was released on bail on Thursday, Feb. 14 by her lawyer.
After her lawyer posted bail (P100,000, or $1,915), Ressa did not shy away from condemning the government for its perceived weaponization of the law against journalists and critics of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
“The only thing I can think of is that the government wants me to feel its power,” Ressa, the CEO of Rappler, said on CNN on Thursday. “I’m being set up as an example so that others will stop asking tough questions, and I think that puts responsibility on me to continue asking tough questions.”
On Wednesday, Ressa was arrested at the paper’s headquarters on suspicion of “cyber libel” by the Philippine Department of Justice.
Ressa, a former CNN bureau chief, claimed her stake as a lead critic against Duterte and his administration, providing damning coverage of the controversial war on drugs that claimed thousands of lives through extrajudicial killings.
“The message that the government is sending is very clear: Be silent or you’re next. So I’m saying and I’m appealing to you, not to be silent,” Ressa added.
The charges stem from a story published to Rappler involving businessman Wilfredo Keng from May 2012, months before the Philippines adopted a cybercrime prevention law. In 2014, Keng claimed that the piece linked him to human and drug trafficking, which prompted the paper to update the article that same year.
Keng argued that the article’s change in 2014 was under the purview of the cybercrime prevention law.
“Constitutionally, you can’t have a law go retroactively,” Ressa said.
On Friday, Keng said in a statement that he will “continue this criminal case against Rappler and Ressa” and is “currently exploring all other cases that can be filed against them.”
In a response to Ressa’s arrest and her reactions, Duterte distanced himself from Ressa’s arrest, telling reporters on Friday, Feb. 16 that he’s “far from it actually.”
“I do not relish picking on her. I’m out of it” adding that he himself has been the subject of legal attacks since he was the Davao City mayor.
Since her arrest, Rappler continues to defend its CEO and urge the government to drop the charges, which they call “absurd and baseless.”
“Maria Ressa, along with her colleagues at Rappler, has fearlessly exposed the abuses of the Duterte government, even in the face of relentless harassment,” the online news outlet said in a statement. “By arresting her on these absurd and baseless charges, concerning an article published 7 years ago and prior to the enactment of the very law under which she is being charged, the Philippines government has exposed how desperate it is to silence critics and stamp out independent journalism in the country. We call on the Duterte government to immediately drop these charges and release Ressa. Investigative journalism is not a crime.”
Despite Ressa’s ongoing strife with the administration, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo told reporters that Ressa’s arrest “has nothing to do with freedom of expression or freedom of the press. I think I’d rather advise Maria Ressa [to] just focus on her defense.”
After years of covering the war on drugs in the Philippines, Ressa was one of four journalists named by TIME magazine as Person of the Year in 2018.
Ressa’s charges of cyber libel come at the heels of a November 2018 charge against Ressa and Rappler for alleged tax evasion and failure to file tax returns, a claim which both defendants denied.