Press Advocates Call Arrest of Filipina Journalist Maria Ressa “Politically Motivated”

February 13, 2019
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter & Producer

Maria Ressa, co-founder of Rappler Media, pictured in an interview for the FRONTLINE documentary, "The Facebook Dilemma."

Maria Ressa, co-founder of the prominent Philippine news site Rappler, was arrested on Wednesday in connection to a digital libel case. Press freedom advocates view her arrest and overnight jail stay as an escalation of ongoing retaliation for Rappler’s adverse reporting of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Ressa’s arrest stems from an article published in May 2012 about a top judicial official at the time and his purported links to businessman Wilfredo Keng.  The charges came after Keng filed a complaint earlier this year over the article’s mention of his alleged ties to crime, according to Rappler.

Ressa was arrested at the Rappler offices on Wednesday evening. Rappler reported that efforts to post her bail were denied by a judge.

“We are not intimidated,” Ressa said in a statement about the latest charges. “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.”

Ressa has been the subject of a series of allegations that advocates have called “persecution”, “systematic judicial harassment” and “brazenly politically motivated.” Late last year, the Philippine Department of Justice charged her and Rappler with five counts of tax fraud. She turned herself in to the authorities in December, but denied all charges at the time.

Rappler has aggressively covered Duterte’s presidency, especially a brutal anti-drug war which has led to thousands of deaths and accusations of extrajudicial killings. Critics of Duterte charge that its coverage has made it a target of the government, which the administration has repeatedly denied.

Salvador Panelo, a presidential spokesman, said the digital libel charges were not a result of Rappler’s reporting. “This is nothing to do with freedom of expression or freedom of the press,” he told a news channel, according to Reuters.

Duterte’s verbal attacks against journalists have been documented since before he was inaugurated as president. In May 2016, when he was president-elect, Duterte said, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination,” according to the Guardian. “The constitution can no longer help you if you disrespect a person,” he was quoted as saying at the time.

Ressa told FRONTLINE in October’s The Facebook Dilemma that she began warning Facebook in 2016 that Duterte was using paid followers and fake accounts to attack critics of his administration — including journalists like herself. “We gave it a name: ‘patriotic trolling,’ online state-sponsored hate that is meant to silence, meant to intimidate,” Ressa said in an interview in 2018.

In March 2017, Duterte called the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a widely-read newspaper that covered the drug war, “garbage.” He also accused the newspaper’s owners at the time of tax evasion, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper was later sold to a business tycoon who was also a donor to Duterte’s campaign. In 2018, Duterte criticized ABS-CBN, one of the Philippines’ largest broadcasters, and said he would block the renewal of its license.

Rappler had its operating license revoked in January 2018 over questions of ownership, and its political reporter was banned from the presidential palace. But at the same time, Ressa and Rappler’s profile rose. Last year, Ressa was named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year along with other journalists who have come under attack for their work — from slain Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the Reuters reporters imprisoned in Myanmar.

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