An award-winning journalist who heads up an online news site that has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte was arrested today.
Maria Ressa was taken into custody at her Rappler office in Manila over a libel complaint described as ‘politically motivated’.
Duterte has openly lambasted journalists who write unfavourable stories about him, including his anti-drug campaign that has left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead.
The complaint from a businessman was condemned by Amnesty International as ‘brazenly politically motivated’.
Duterte’s government said the arrest was a normal step in response to the complaint.
Maria Ressa, head of online news platform Rappler, leaves the office after being served an arrest warrant today in Pasig City, Manila
Duterte has branded news sites such as Rappler which have been critical of his high-profile war on drug traffickers as ‘fake news’. Pictured with Chinese President Xi Jinping when he visited the Philippines last November
Rappler Inc., the news site which Ressa heads, said National Bureau of Investigation agents served the warrant late this afternoon, making it difficult for Ressa to apply for bail, and escorted her from the office to NBI headquarters.
Ressa and a former Rappler researcher, Reynaldo Santos Jr., were indicted recently, the Department of Justice said.
Speaking to reporters after her arrest, the veteran journalist, who is now CEO and executive editor, said she was ‘shocked that the rule of law has been broken to a point that I can’t see it’.
Footage streamed on Facebook showed plain-clothes party officials speaking with Ressa, while several of the site’s journalists live-tweeted what was happening.
She said in a statement: ‘We are not intimidated. No amount of legal cases, black propaganda, and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line,.
‘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.’
Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor of Rappler, was arrested today at the news site’s HQ today by Filipino government agents
Ressa showed her arrest warrant to the cameras as a pack of reporters covered her detention over a libel complaint
Rappler said the businessman filed the libel complaint five years after the article appeared in 2012, and the law under which Ressa was charged by the government, the Cybercrime Prevention Act, did not go into effect until months after the article’s publication.
The article included allegations that the businessman was linked to illegal drugs and human trafficking, and that a car registered in his name had been used by the country’s chief justice.
Amnesty International Philippines said Ressa’s arrest was based on a ‘trumped up libel charge’.
‘This is brazenly politically motivated, and consistent with the authorities’ threats and repeated targeting of Ressa and her team,’ it said.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said: ‘The arrest of Ressa on the clearly manipulated charge of cyberlibel is a shameless act of persecution by a bully government.
‘The government … now proves it will go to ridiculous lengths to forcibly silence critical media.’
Official estimates put the number dead from President Duterte’s war on drugs at 5,000, but a senator recently said it had claimed more than 20,000 lives
Official estimates put the number of dead from the Filipino president’s widely-criticised war on drugs at 5,000, but a senator recently said it had claimed more than 20,000 lives.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the arrest was ‘merely part of any criminal procedure’ and that Ressa was indicted more than a week ago.
Duterte’s spokesman said the charge against Ressa was based on facts which she should simply answer and had ‘nothing to do’ with press freedom.
Rappler is one of several news agencies deemed critical of Duterte’s policies, which has seen his describe the outlet as ‘fake news’.
Duterte had already banned a Rappler reporter from his news briefings after the government’s corporate watchdog found that the news site violated a constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership of media when it received money from an international investment firm.
Rappler, which was founded in 2012, rejected the ruling.
Maria Ressa was arrested on what was described by Amnesty International as ‘brazenly politically motivated’ charges
Ressa has also posted bail on tax evasion charges which she denies and says were politically motivated.
The International Press Institute, a global network of media personnel, strongly condemned Ressa’s detention.
IPI director of advocacy Ravi R. Prasad said: ‘The arrest of Maria Ressa is an outrageous attempt by the Philippines government to silence a news organization that has been courageously investigating corruption and human rights violations in the country.
‘The manner in which Ressa has been pursued by the government by slapping legal cases against her is not only shameful but also a gross and willful violation of press freedom.’
In its selection of Ressa as a Person of the Year, Time magazine cited her and several other journalists as ‘guardians’ in what it said was an effort to emphasise the importance of reporters’ work in an increasingly hostile world.
Ressa, who has worked with CNN, also was the winner of two prestigious journalism awards last year, a Press Freedom award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Center for Journalists’ Knight International Journalism Award.