Ressa arrest sparks int’l outrage
Condemnation from international and local press freedom and human rights groups poured in on Thursday after National Bureau of Investigation agents arrested Rappler CEO Maria Ressa on cyberlibel charges widely seen as a government attempt to silence criticism of President Duterte.
Ressa was arrested in her Pasig City office late on Wednesday but was ordered freed on P100,000 bail by the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) on Thursday morning.
She spent Wednesday night at NBI headquarters in Manila after a night court refused to accept her bail because the warrant issued by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila RTC Branch 46 did not state the amount.
Clashes with Duterte
Her arrest sparked international and local censure and allegations she was being targeted over her news site’s criticism of President Duterte.
Rappler and Ressa, 55, have been hit with tax evasion charges and now a cyberlibel case after clashing repeatedly with Duterte over the President’s war on illegal drugs that has killed thousands of suspects.
The cyberlibel charge against Ressa, one of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” honorees for 2018, carries up to 12 years behind bars.
It stemmed from a complaint filed with the NBI by businessman Wilfredo Keng over a Rappler report published on May 29, 2012, linking him to impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona and claiming he had been under government surveillance on suspicion that he was involved in several crimes.
The Cybercrime Prevention Act was passed into law on Sept. 12, 2012, and took effect on Oct. 3, 2012.
Rappler, however, updated the story on Feb. 19, 2014, making it “actionable,” according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), which approved the filing of charges against Ressa.
Letter to President
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-Ifra) and the World Editors Forum wrote a joint letter to Mr. Duterte expressing concern that the charges against Ressa were “politically motivated.”
“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 international press groups said.
“We would also like to remind you that bringing charges for a crime that was not enacted at the time of the alleged infraction is not only a legal absurdity, it also risks rendering the Cybercrime Prevention Act unconstitutional, as it would become an ‘ex post facto’ law,” they said.
Amnesty International condemned the arrest of Ressa on what the group called “trumped-up libel charge.”
“This is brazenly politically motivated, and consistent with the authorities’ threats and repeated targeting of Ressa and her team. Authorities should end this harassment, drop the charges, and repeal this repressive law,” Butch Olano, Amnesty International director for the Philippines, said in a statement.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also called on Philippine authorities to immediately release Ressa and drop all pending charges against her.
“We call on Filipino authorities to immediately release Ressa, drop this spurious cyberlibel charge, and cease and desist this campaign of intimidation aimed at silencing Rappler,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ senior Southeast Asian representative.
Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, tweeted: “And another terrible nail in the coffin. #Philippines Maria, I am thinking of you. You can count on me. You can count on us. #pressfreedom.”
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour described Ressa’s arrest as a “desperate” move by the Duterte administration.
“You know a government is desperate when they arrest a journalist. President Duterte: FREE “mariaressa NOW,” Amanpour tweeted.
In a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said the charges against Ressa were “clearly manipulated” and “part of the administration’s obsession to shut Rappler down and intimidate the rest of the independent Philippine media into toeing the line.”
Speaking to reporters after her release, Ressa said her arrest meant one thing: “They want us (journalists) to be scared.”
Ressa blamed her arrest on Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who approved the filing of charges against her.
“Secretary Guevarra, these are your actions,” she said. “You don’t want to be known as the secretary of injustice. I’m a citizen of this country and you cannot violate my rights.”
‘A country of laws’
Commenting on the references to the freedom of expression, Malacañang said the case brought against Ressa had nothing to do with it.
“Freedom of expression, as critics of [President Duterte’s] administration erroneously suggest, is absolutely unrelated to Ms Ressa’s probable violation of the country’s laws,” presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a statement on Wednesday night after Ressa’s arrest.
“We are a country of laws and every citizen must adhere to the rule of law. No one is above the law, not even high-profile, self-anointed crusading journalists,” Panelo said.
Lawmakers on Thursday came to Ressa’s defense, warning that her arrest was curtailment of free speech and erosion of democracy.
Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate public information committee, said she hoped the courts would follow the proper processes in handling Ressa’s case.
Dangers of muted press
Poe also warned of the dangers of a muted press.
“I think we should fear more if the press is silenced because it’s really through the freedom of speech that we are able to guard the different institutions in government and we are able to uphold democracy in our country,” she said.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said Ressa’s arrest was the “latest display of Duterte’s authoritarian tendencies, and much like other would-be dictators, his distaste for the free and principled press.”
In a dispatch from her detention cell in Camp Crame, Quezon City, Sen. Leila de Lima said truth tellers were being persecuted, and that it infuriated her that Ressa’s arrest came days before the country celebrated its return to democracy during the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan called Ressa’s arrest harassment and said the administration was going after the institutions that could stand up to its abuse of power.
Sen. Francis Escudero said the government must not try to muzzle the press.
“Every government needs a free and unbridled press and should avoid sending/creating a chilling effect on members of the media,” Escudero tweeted. —REPORTS FROM AIE BALAGTAS SEE, MELVIN GASCON, CHRISTINE O. AVENDAÑO, LEILA B. SALAVERRIA, KRISSY AGUILAR, INQUIRER RESEARCH AND AFP
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