Duterte Steps Up Harassment of News Publication

Maria Ressa, one of Time Magazine’s 2018 Persons of the Year and one of Asia’s most distinguished journalists, was arrested today (March 29) in Manila on charges of illegal ownership of her hard-hitting online publication Rappler as she returned from an overseas trip.

Ressa was arrested at the baggage claim at Ninoy Aquino International Airport at 6:30 am and transported to police headquarters, where she paid bail. It was the second time in little more than a month that she has been arrested and the seventh time she has been forced to post bail on a long string of charges widely perceived as harassment for Rappler’s refusal to buckle under and stop criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte’s ill-starred drug campaign.

Charged along with Ressa were Rappler executives Manuel Ayala, Nico Jose Nolledo, Glenda Gloria, James Bitangca, Felicia Atienza, and James Velasquez although Ressa was the only one arrested. All were charged with alleged violation of the so-called “Anti-Dummy Law,” which requires all local media to be 100 percent Filipino owned, the reports said. The government charge of foreign ownership of Rappler stemmed from a donation by the American billionaire Pierre Omidyar, one of the founders of eBay, to get Rappler up and running.

Rappler and its lawyers have repeatedly said the donation from Omidyar’s journalism support foundation, the Omidyar Network, doesn’t constitute ownership. Press and human rights organizations have been quick to denounce the action by the Duterte administration.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, in a prepared statement, said “The judicial harassment of Rappler by various government agencies is bordering on the absurd. In all, the website and its journalists are currently the targets of proceedings in at least 11 cases, each as spurious as the other. Against the government’s manipulation of the judicial system with the aim of silencing troublesome media outlets, Rappler stands as a pillar of democracy to be defended at all cost.”

The Philippines, the press watchdog pointed out, is ranked 133rd of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

"Philippine officials should stop abusing their authority by issuing arrest warrants against Rappler editor Maria Ressa," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "It is clear that the government is manipulating the law to muzzle and intimidate one of its most credible media critics. This egregious harassment must stop."

Carlos Conde, a researcher for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, called the case against Ressa and members of her board “unprecedented and speaks volumes of the Duterte administration’s determination to shut the website down for its credible and consistent reporting on the government, particularly the ‘drug war’ and the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects and civilians. The administration has shown a relentlessness in its persecution of government critics unseen since the time of the Marcos dictatorship. The charges against Rappler and its people should be dropped.”

Duterte, like the former strongman Ferdinand Marcos before him, has set out to use dubious law as a cudgel to silence as many critics as possible since he was elected in 2016. His first target, shortly after he was elected, was the highly respected former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, whom he arrested and jailed on suspicious drug charges after she was elected to the Senate and who remains in custody without ever having been tried. International rights organizations have criticized the investigation and custody of the senator as a sham meant to silence her criticism of his drug campaign.

Meanwhile three of de Lima’s fellow lawmakers, Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon “Bong” Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada, who were caught up in the so-called Pork Barrel Scandal, one of the country’s biggest, are free and running for office in midterms to be held later this year.

Duterte has also sought to revoke the amnesty granted to Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, his most implacable legislative critic, by his predecessor, Benigno S. Aquino III for Trillanes’ part in attempted coups during Aquino’s mother’s administration. He used dubious procedures to engineer the removal of his most respected jurist critic, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Groups allied with Duterte have filed multiple lawsuits against former president Aquino and former budget secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad, a longtime leader of the Liberal Party.

Ressa, 55, was born in Manila but immigrated with her family to the United States at age 9. She graduated cum laude with a degree in English from Princeton University. She completed her master's degree at the University of the Philippines and for two decades served as a reporter in Southeast Asia for CNN.

“The fact that the government continues to try to label us as criminals is itself criminal,” Ressa told reporters after her release at around noon. “Every action takes us further on a descent to tyranny. This is the weaponization of the law.”

“This latest episode is not surprising, and we prepared ourselves for it,” said Francis Lim, Ressa’s legal counsel. “But let it be crystal clear that these acts of harassment will not deter our clients from doing their duty as journalists.”

In February, Ressa and a former staffer, Reynaldo Santos, were arrested under the Philippines’ so-called cyber-libel law over a seven-year-old story under a law that wasn’t passed until two months after the offence was allegedly committed. In 2017, the National Bureau of Investigation called Ressa and Santos in to examine the situation and ultimately decided no charges need be filed. But that was overruled by the Justice Department and the charges were reintroduced.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has called Rappler the Duterte administration’s “whipping boy” in its efforts to silence what was once considered the freest press in Asia.

The Duterte administration has denied any meddling in the justice system and said it isn't responsible for the charges, nor the previous charges over libel. Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo previously said the libel case “has nothing to do with freedom of expression or the press. Regardless of who commits any crime he or she will be charged in accordance with the law.”

Ressa’s arraignment and pretrial conference are set for April 10. Given the actions the Duterte administration has taken against other foes including de Lima, legal observers are deeply concerned over her chances.

“This is not the Philippines I knew,” Ressa told local reporters after posting bail. “This is not the Philippines I voluntarily chose as my home country.”