Opposition groups slam Ressa’s arrest on anti-dummy charge
Malacañang on Friday denied having a hand in the latest legal woes of an online news site whose reports have angered President Duterte as members of the political opposition and local and international media and human rights groups denounced the arrest of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa as a curtailment of press freedom.
“Press freedom has nothing to do with the charges against Ms Ressa. She’s charged of a crime and there is a determination of probable cause, hence a warrant of arrest has been issued,” said presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, adding that due process had been observed in her case.
Two female police officers arrested Ressa at Ninoy Aquino International Airport early Friday on her return from San Francisco. The arrest warrant was issued by Judge Acerey Pacheco of the Pasig Regional Trial Court Branch 265.
“What can I say? I know that the two women from the police department aren’t the ones doing this but obviously this is yet another abuse of my rights. I’m being treated like a criminal when my only crime is to be an independent journalist. So let’s figure out what’s next, yeah? Alice in Wonderland. I hope that at some point the world turns right side up,” Ressa told reporters.
She later posted a P90,000 bail. Rappler managing editor, Glenda Gloria, and other defendants in the case posted bail on Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch said the case against Ressa and Rappler was “unprecedented and speaks volumes of the Duterte administration’s determination to shut the website down for its credible and consistent reporting on the government, particularly the ‘drug war’ and the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects and civilians.”
Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, noting that the Philippines has been long been the “standard bearer” for press freedom in the region, expressed fears that the media in neighboring countries could come under similar attacks.
“If Duterte is able to get away with effectively silencing what has been one of his most prominent and credible media critics, that could send a message to the wider region that this is an attack you can get away with,” he said.
The case against Ressa stemmed from a complaint by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) accusing Rappler of violating the law by allowing a foreign investor, US-based Omidyar Network, to inject funds into the company.
The Constitution bans foreign ownership or control of mass media but Rappler has argued that Omidyar had no control or influence over its news operations.
Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan denounced the arrest, saying it showed that the Duterte administration was determined to “pull out all the stops to silence critics and suppress the truth.”
“We condemn this mob mentality and aggression toward the media as we urge the various sectors not to be intimidated and stand for fairness and truth, and the right to free speech,” he said in a statement.
Francis Lim, one of Ressa’s lawyers, told the Inquirer that it was “crystal clear that these acts of harassment” against Ressa and Rappler “will not deter them from doing their duty as journalists.”
“This latest episode is not surprising and we prepared ourselves for it,” he said. “We believe in the rule of law and it is our fervent hope that we will prevail in the end.”
Ressa said it was the seventh bail she had posted in a little over a year for 11 cases against her and Rappler.
The other charges against her and Rappler include several counts of tax evasion, cyberlibel and a libel complaint against a Rappler reporter.
She was arrested for the cyberlibel charge last month and was detained overnight at the NBI before being able to post bail.
Ressa’s legal problems began in January last year when the Securities and Exchange Commission decided to revoke Rappler’s certificate of registration and incorporation for allegedly violating the constitutional restriction of 100-percent Filipino ownership and control of media entities. The case is under appeal.
Media and arts alliance Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity (Lodi) said Ressa’s arrest was “the latest installment in the Duterte regime’s calculated attacks on Rappler, specifically, and on Philippine media, generally.”
“The objective is to intimidate, to harass, to shame and ultimately to surrender press freedom and free expression,” the group said in a statement.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the barrage of lawsuits against Rappler “seeks to silence or intimidate the independent and critical press.”
“But this intolerant and vindictive government’s ham-fisted efforts to humiliate Rappler and its officers and personnel have succeeded only in humiliating itself in the eyes of the world and everyone who values freedom and democracy,” the NUJP said.
The women’s party-list Gabriela said Ressa’s arrest coincided with the “persistent cyberattacks” on a number of alternative media websites such as Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly.
“Ressa’s recent arrest and the political persecution of women human rights defenders stand in stark contrast with the Duterte regime’s special treatment of big-time drug lords and plunderers who are being shielded from liability by no less than the President himself,” Gabriela said.
Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, an opposition senatorial candidate, said the arrest was part of a “script” to deflect attention from dismissed police official Eduardo Acierto’s claims that Mr. Duterte and top officials ignored findings that Chinese businessman Michael Yang, a former presidential adviser, had links to the illegal drug trade.
Acierto, a former police senior superintendent who had gone in hiding after he was implicated in the smuggling of P11-billion worth of “shabu” (crystal meth) into the country, accused the officials of blocking further investigation against Yang.
Another opposition senatorial candidate, former law dean Chel Diokno, indicated that the government spent more time and effort in “oppressing” Ressa than in running after drug lords with alleged links to Malacanang.
“Let’s not fool each other. It appears that the priority of the Duterte administration is to exact vengeance on one critic than to eradicate drugs,” he said in a statement. —WITH REPORTS FROM JULIE M. AURELIO, MARLON RAMOS, MELVIN GASCON, JEROME ANING, MARIEJO S. RAMOS, DJ YAP, INQUIRER RESEARCH, AFP AND AP
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