Published: Thu, February 14, 2019
Worldwide | By Isabel Fisher

Philippine journalist and Time Person of the Year arrested on libel charges

Philippine journalist and Time Person of the Year arrested on libel charges

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa has been freed on bail, following an arrest that sparked worldwide censure and allegations she is being targeted over her news site's criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The charge traces back to a story published in May 2012, months before the country's cyber crime prevention law was approved in September. It "has nothing to do with freedom of expression or freedom of the press", he said, adding, "I think I'd rather advise Maria Ressa just focus on her defense".

Ressa, who has worked with CNN, also was the victor of two prestigious journalism awards previous year, a Press Freedom award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Centre for Journalists' Knight International Journalism Award.

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.

The case, filed by the DOJ, stemmed from a complaint by businessman Wilfredo Keng, who was identified in a Rappler article as the owner of the SUV that then-chief justice Renato Corona had used during the impeachment trial.

Last year, the Department of Justice brought five cases of alleged tax evasion against Ressa.

The website argued that the reversal of the initial government decision not to bring charges, based on the fact that the article was updated after the relevant law's enactment, set a "a risky precedent that puts anyone - not just the media - who publishes anything online perennially in danger of being charged with libel".

"That's absolutely unrelated. The president has been criticized and he does not bother", Panelo told DZMM radio.

In the aftermath of Duterte's election in 2016, Ressa and Rappler were among the fist to sound the alarm on how fake news, particularly fake news on Facebook, shaped the Philippine election - a line of coverage that proved particularly prescient.

Staff have also described professional hurdles and threats.

"It is clear that the Department of Justice perverted the law by charging Maria for an offense allegedly committed before it actually became an offense under the law", NUJP said.

The administration, its social media trolls, and government propagandists have launched repeated attacks against Rappler and its staffers, at one point banning one of its reporters, Pia Ranada, from covering the presidential premises. Multimedia Head Lilibeth Frondoso was imprisoned with her newborn child.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also stood by Ressa.

Ressa's detention was criticized by journalists and activists at home and overseas.

"The arrest of journalist @mariaressa by the Philippine government is outrageous and must be condemned by all democratic nations", Albright said in a tweet where she called Ressa a friend. "So when you slap on these lawsuits, you just bleed them".

Rappler is no stranger to legal challenges. It can be an effective tool of harassment and intimidation to silence critical reporting on the part of the media.

Philippine authorities have arrested a prominent journalist who told CBS News earlier this month that she feared she was being persecuted for political reasons. Officers of the National Bureau of Investigations reportedly ordered the journalists them to stop filming and taking photos. People chanted "defend press freedom" and "free Maria Ressa".

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