Maria Ressa, a high-profile Philippine journalist and vocal critic of the country’s president, was arrested on Wednesday 13 February in connection with “cyber libel” charges against Rappler, the news site she founded and oversees. Instead of attending an event on press freedom at the University of the Philippines, she spent the night in jail and arrived in court for bail proceedings on Thursday morning in Manila. After posting bail of 100,000 Philippines peso (£1,400), she has now been released.
The award-winning journalist and one of Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year told reporters as as she left the court: “This is the sixth time that I have posted bail and I will pay more bail than convicted criminals. I will pay more bail than Imelda Marcos.”
She added: “I’m aghast, it’s unbelievable that this can happen in a democracy. But I’m processing it and trying to figure out if they are trying to send me a message. The message is clear: this is an abuse of power and it’s a weaponisation of the law. But if they wanted to scare me, this isn’t the way to scare me.”
Amnesty International slammed the decision to issue a warrant for Ressa’s arrest.
“This is brazenly politically motivated, and consistent with the authorities’ threats and repeated targeting of Ressa and her team. Authorities should end this harassment, drop the charges and repeal this repressive law,” Amnesty International Philippines section director Butch Olano said in a statement.
The US senator Brian Schatz also condemned the arrest of Ressa on what he called “trumped-up charges”.
“Instead of trying to silence journalists who are accurately reporting the news, the Filipino government should focus on protecting democracy and defending the country’s constitution, including its commitment to a free press,” Schatz said according to the Guardian.
Rappler said the charges are over an article it published in 2012. However, the cyber libel law only came into effect in the Philippines in 2014. The NBI ruled in January that because the report preceded the law, Ressa could not be charged. But that judgment was overturned by the Department of Justice on the grounds that the news article was updated in February 2014.
Philippine prosecutors filed five cases related to tax evasion against Ressa and Rappler late last year. Some of the charges allege that the company failed to declare about $3 million in 2015 on tax returns from an investment by the Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar.
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.
Marcus Brauchli, former executive editor at the Washington Post told CNN that: “Maria has set an incredibly high standard for journalism in the Philippines and has raised a generation of younger journalists who now aim at that same level.”
Rappler’s extensive reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs has earned praise from human rights advocates, but has made the site and its journalists a target by supporters of the Duterte administration.
Prior to this, she managed ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs, the largest multi-platform news operation in the Philippines, according to her Rappler author profile. Over the years she has been honoured multiple times – one of her more recent accolades was the Knight International Journalism Award from the International Committee for Journalists in 2018.