Prominent rights lawyer Amal Clooney has said she will join the legal team defending Philippines journalist Maria Ressa, whose news site has repeatedly clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte. Ressa, who was named a Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018 for her journalism, faces several criminal charges along with her website Rappler, in what press freedom advocates have branded an act of “persecution”.
“Maria Ressa is a courageous journalist who is being persecuted for reporting the news and standing up to human rights abuses,” Clooney said in a statement issued by London’s Doughty Street Chambers, where she works, on Monday. “We will pursue all available legal remedies to vindicate her rights and defend press freedom and the rule of law in the Philippines.”
Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for over three decades, previously working for CNN before launching Rappler in 2011. Rappler is an online news platform with an ethos similar to a tech start-up, operating with a small team of 12 young reporters and developers. It was the first of its kind in the Philippines, and while initially seen as a site primarily for young readers, through the power of social media it has grown into the fourth biggest news website in the Philippines with over 100 journalists. Rappler also works as a fact-checker for Facebook in the Philippines in the fight against fake news.
Ressa was arrested twice this year and has accused Duterte of using prosecutions against her, including ongoing cases of alleged tax evasion and libel, to silence critics and intimidate the press.
“It is clear that the government is manipulating the law to muzzle and intimidate one of its most credible media critics,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists after her arrest in March.
Clooney, appointed special envoy for media freedom by the British government, also defended two Reuters journalists jailed for more than 16 months in Myanmar and freed in May this year. She is ranked in the leading legal directories Chambers and Partners and Legal 500 as one of the top lawyers in the UK in the fields of international human rights and international criminal law and served as a senior advisor to Kofi Annan when he was the UN’s Envoy on Syria.
“I am delighted that Amal Clooney and her team will be representing me at the international level to challenge the violations of my rights and those of the media organisation I represent,” Ressa said in the statement.
Duterte has branded Rappler a “fake news outlet” and his government insists it is simply enforcing the law as cases pile up against the website publishing reports critical of the president’s deadly anti-drug crackdown. Ressa faces 9 cases in court in the Philippines, but overall, she, Rappler, its directors, and staff face at least 11 complaints, investigations, and cases.
“Around the world, a new generation of authoritarian leaders is leading a concerted and intentional assault on truth, with serious consequences for journalists such as Maria who are committed to exposing corruption, documenting abuse and combating misinformation,” Madeleine Albright, a former US Secretary of State, wrote about Ressa in Time Magazine.
Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, both barristers at London’s Doughty Street Chambers, will lead the international legal team, working with barristers Can Yeginsu and Katherine O’Byrne. The international legal team will also work closely with US counsel at the leading US law firm Covington & Burling LLP, including Ambassador Daniel Feldman, Peter Lichtenbaum and Kurt Wimmer at the firm’s Washington DC office, and will coordinate as necessary with domestic counsel in Manila.
“Our Filipino lawyers continue to defend us in our cases now pending in court as well as in the complaints that are pending with the justice department,” Ressa said in a statement on Tuesday, July 9. “Our international lawyers will look into how best to protect us under international law and institutions, and will work with our Philippine counsels toward this goal,” she added.
Lawyer Amal Clooney had represented a number of veteran journalists in her career including Mohamed Fahmy, the former Al Jazeera English bureau chief jailed in Egypt’s notorious Scorpion prison on bogus terrorism charges, Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks currently jailed in the UK, and award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.