Philippines arrests top journalist and Duterte critic Maria Ressa on libel charge

Journalist Maria Ressa, named a Time Magazine person of the year in 2018 for her work, was taken into custody by Philippine authorities in Manila. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - Philippines government agents on Wednesday (Feb 13) arrested the top executive of a news website critical of President Rodrigo Duterte's policies on a cyber-libel complaint she has dismissed as "baseless" and "baffling".

Officers sent by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) served Maria Ressa, chief executive of online news platform Rappler, an arrest warrant issued by a local court on Tuesday at Rappler's headquarters, as her staff took videos they livestreamed on Facebook.

"We are not intimidated," Ressa told reporters, upon arriving at the NBI's main office where she was taken.

"No amount of legal cases, black propaganda and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line," she said. "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."

The warrant stemmed from a complaint of cyber-libel filed in 2017 by businessman Wilfredo Keng.

Mr Keng featured in a 2012 Rappler story, updated in 2014, that cited an intelligence report linking him to illegal activities such as human trafficking and drug smuggling.

Ressa had argued that the statute of limitations on libel, which should also apply to cyber libel, had already expired so the NBI had no basis for investigating and charging her with the offence.

As the Rappler story was published before the country's cyber crime law took effect, "there was yet no crime of cyber libel to be committed," she said.

Ressa and Rappler were indicted in October for allegedly attempting to evade taxes by not reporting gains of almost US$3 million (S$4 million) in the company's 2015 tax returns.

The penalties could include a fine, along with up to 10 years of imprisonment for Ressa.

Ressa had claimed these cases piling up against her and her startup are "politically motivated, and they are manufactured".

But Mr Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters "the case against Maria Ressa is not based on any violation of press freedom".

"Simply, she committed a crime and the court finds probable cause that's why she is now being charged... It's as simple as that," he said.

Mr Duterte has bristled over Rappler's coverage of his government.

The news site has scrutinised his brutal crackdown on the narcotics trade, challenged the accuracy of his public statements, and criticised his foreign policies.

Mr Duterte has banned one of Rappler's senior reporters from covering news on him, and lashed out at the media company in several public speeches.

In January last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler's licence - though it allowed the site to continue operating as the decision was not yet final - for violating foreign ownership rules, a charge it denies.

The Philippine president's antagonism towards the media is not directed at Rappler alone. He has also threatened several times to block the licence renewal for ABS-CBN, the country's largest broadcast network.

He has called reporters "spies" used expletives to describe them, and made thinly-veiled death threats, warning journalists that they are "not exempted from assassination".

Following Ressa's arrest, in a letter addressed to President 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.

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.

Amnesty International had called the cyber-libel case "yet another absurd legal attack" that amounted to "harassment".

Ressa had been Jakarta bureau chief of CNN before she set out on her own and formed Rappler in 2012.

She was the winner of two prestigious journalism awards, a Press Freedom award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Centre for Journalists' Knight International Journalism Award.

Time magazine last year named her and three other journalists as its Person of the Year, in what it said was an effort to emphasise the importance of reporters' work in an increasingly hostile world.

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