Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa was freed on bail Thursday following an arrest that sparked international censure and allegations she is being targeted over her news site’s criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Ressa, 55, spent a night in detention after authorities arrested her at her Manila office Wednesday in a sharp upping of government pressure on her and her news website Rappler.
The site and Ressa have been hit with tax evasion charges and now a libel case after clashing repeatedly with Duterte over his deadly crackdown on illegal drugs that has killed thousands.
“The message that the government is sending is very clear… be silent or you’re next,” an emotional Ressa told reporters outside a Manila court.
She posted a bond of P100,000, the sixth time since December that she has paid bail on a government case.
“I am appealing to you not to be silent, even if—and especially if—you’re next,” added Ressa, who was named a Time Magazine “Person of the Year” in 2018 for her journalism.
International condemnation from dignitaries, press freedom and human rights groups has poured in since plainclothes agents appeared at Rappler to serve an arrest warrant.
“The arrest of Maria Ressa is an outrage,” said Committee to Protect Journalists Chairperson Kathleen Carroll. “She should be freed immediately and the Philippines government needs to cease its multi-pronged attack on Rappler.”
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, tweeted in support: “The arrest of journalist @mariaressa by the Philippine government is outrageous and must be condemned by all democratic nations.”
The libel case against Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. stems from a 2012 report written about a businessman’s alleged ties to a then-judge on the nation’s top court.
While investigators initially dismissed the businessman’s 2017 complaint about the article, the case was subsequently forwarded to prosecutors for their consideration.
The legal foundation of the case is a controversial law aiming to crack down on online offenses ranging from harassment to child pornography.
Ressa’s team has argued the legislation did not take effect until months after the story was published and is not retroactive, however the government has countered that it is fair game because the story was updated in 2014.
“In essence in the contemplation of the law it is a new article because of the modification, republication,” Markk Perete, spokesman for Department of Justice prosecutors, said. “That is deemed as a new article.”
Rappler concedes the story was updated, but notes it was to fix a typo and no substantive changes were made.
Ressa’s lawyer JJ Disini said he will formally ask the court within the week to dismiss the case as the publication and the modification were made more than a year ago.
He argues the maximum period set by law for a legal action to be brought has already lapsed.
“That’s disincentive for people to speak out,” Disini told reporters. “I think there would be grounds to raise these issues in the Supreme Court.”
Duterte has lashed out at other critical media outfits before, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and broadcaster ABS-CBN, threatening to go after their owners over alleged unpaid taxes or block the network’s franchise renewal.
Some of the drug crackdown’s highest-profile detractors have wound up behind bars, including Senator Leila de Lima, who was jailed on drug charges she insists were fabricated to silence her.
Ressa insists Rappler is not anti-Duterte, saying it is just doing its job to hold the government to account.
National Bureau of Investigation officers arrested Ressa at Rappler’s bureau in Manila at 5 p.m. Wednesday, making it impossible for her to post bail on the same day.
Rappler streamed video of the arrest made by officers in civilian clothes on its Facebook page.
The arrest warrant was issued by Presiding Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46, Rappler reported.
Former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. has also been charged in the case, reports said. The NBI had previously closed its investigation on the case because it found no basis to proceed with the complaint, but recently reversed that decision to pursue the charge, Rappler reported.
Penalties for violations under the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act include imprisonment and fines.
Ressa told CPJ before her arrest today that the cyber libel charge was political and that “the law is being weaponized in an attempt to control the public narrative.”
“We will not be intimidated and will continue to shine the light on actions of impunity,” she said.
On Nov. 20, 2018, the CPJ bestowed its 2018 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award on Ressa, a former CNN reporter, at its annual International Press Freedom Award ceremony held in New York City.
Opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes IV said the latest move to persecute Ressa unmasked President Duterte’s despotic regime and his fear of accountability.
‘We must unite and stand for press freedom in these trying times, as Duterte systematically destroys our democracy,” he said.
Another member of the opposition, Senator Risa Hontiveros, said Ressa’s arrest was “a sad, dark day for Philippine press freedom.”
She said the arrest also highlights Duterte’s predilection for selective justice, given how it stands in stark contrast to the administration’s unwillingness to carry out the arrest warrant against Imelda Marcos, the wife of Duterte’s “idol,” and its inability to bring to justice Duterte’s friend and accused drug lord Peter Lim.
READ: Palace, DOJ chime in on Ressa: Rule of law should be observed
She stressed there is no question that Ressa’s arrest is meant to intimidate members of the media – especially those engaged in reportage critical of the administration.
“I, along with many others, stand with Maria Ressa and Rappler in their fight against the administration’s latest assault on the freedom of the press and its other efforts to erode our democratic institutions,” she said.
Senator Francis Escudero said the government should avoid creating “a chilling effect on members of the media” because “a free and unbridled” fourth estate is essential to democracy.
Senator Nancy Binay said it is saddening to see how journalists around the world are being restricted, intimidated, silenced, attacked, and constantly threatened even in countries where there is seemingly a democratic space.
“We have fought hard to regain press freedom,” she said, adding that the media have never been more under threat since 1986.
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV condemned Ressa’s arrest, calling it a government ploy to silence its critics, including journalists.
De Lima said like the Justice department, the NBI has been reduced to a tool of oppression. With