Rappler editor Maria Ressa, Time person of the Year, arrested in Philippines on libel charges



February 14, 2019 10:37:56

The award-winning head of a Philippines online news site that has aggressively covered President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has been arrested by government agents in a libel case.

Key points:

  • The move has been criticised as a violation of press freedom
  • Rappler is one of the few remaining independent news agencies in the country
  • Ms Ressa is among several journalists cited as a ‘guardian’ by Time Magazine

Maria Ressa, editor and CEO of Rappler, who was selected by Time magazine as one of its Persons of the Year last year, was arrested over a libel complaint from a businessman. Amnesty International condemned the arrest as “brazenly politically motivated”.

Mr Duterte has openly lambasted journalists who write unfavourable stories about him, including his anti-drug campaign that has left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead.

His Government said the arrest was a normal step in response to the complaint.

Rappler said the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents served the warrant on Wednesday afternoon, making it difficult for Ms Ressa to apply for bail, and escorted her from the Rappler office to NBI headquarters.

“We are not intimidated. No amount of legal cases, black propaganda, and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line,” Ms 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.”

Ms Ressa and a former Rappler researcher, Reynaldo Santos Jr, were indicted recently, the Department of Justice said.

Rappler said the businessman filed the libel complaint five years after the article appeared in 2012, and the law under which Ms Ressa was charged by the Government, the Cybercrime Prevention Act, did not go into effect until months after the article’s publication.

The article included allegations the businessman was linked to illegal drugs and human trafficking, and that a car registered in his name had been used by the country’s chief justice.

‘Wilful violation of press freedom’

Rappler is one of several news agencies deemed critical of Duterte’s policies.

Amnesty International Philippines said Ms Ressa’s arrest was based on a “trumped-up libel charge”.

“This is brazenly politically motivated, and consistent with the authorities’ threats and repeated targeting of Ressa and her team,” it said.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the arrest was “merely part of any criminal procedure”.

Mr Duterte’s spokesman said the charge against Ms Ressa was based on facts which she should simply answer and had “nothing to do” with press freedom.

Mr Duterte had already banned a Rappler reporter from his news briefings after the Government’s corporate watchdog found the news site violated a constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership of media when it received money from an international investment firm.

Rappler rejected the ruling.

Ms Ressa has also posted bail on tax-evasion charges which she denies and says were politically motivated.

The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of media personnel, strongly condemned Ms Ressa’s detention.

“The arrest of Maria Ressa is an outrageous attempt by the Philippines Government to silence a news organisation that has been courageously investigating corruption and human rights violations in the country,” IPI director of advocacy Ravi R Prasad said in a statement.

“The manner in which Ressa has been pursued by the Government, by slapping legal cases against her, is not only shameful but also a gross and wilful violation of press freedom.”

In its selection of Ms Ressa as a Person of the Year, Time Magazine cited her and several other journalists as “guardians” in what it said was an effort to emphasise the importance of reporters’ work in an increasingly hostile world.

Ms Ressa, who has worked with CNN, was also the winner of two prestigious journalism awards last year: a Press Freedom award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Center for Journalists’ Knight International Journalism Award.















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