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Philippines journalists decry ‘intimidation’ as website editor arrested

Duterte government accused of shameless persecution of Rappler’s Maria Ressa


 Maria Ressa has been accused of ‘cyber-libel’, which she denies. Photograph: EPA

WT24 Desk

The editor of an online newspaper in the Philippines has been arrested on charges of “cyber-libel” as part of what the country’s journalists’ union said was a campaign of intimidation against voices critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, The Guardian reports.

Maria Ressa’s colleagues at Rappler posted a livestream on Facebook of officials speaking to her at the website’s headquarters on Wednesday. The charge of cyber-libel, which Ressa denies, was filed by the justice department and the warrant for Ressa’s arrest was issued by a Manila court judge on Tuesday. After she was arrested, Ressa was brought to the National Bureau of Investigations, which is under the department of justice.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines described the arrest as a “shameless act of persecution by a bully government”. “It is clear this is part of the administration’s obsession to shut Rappler down and intimidate the rest of the independent Philippine media into toeing the lines,” the NUJ said in a statement.

The charges against Ressa relate to a story published on Rappler’s website in May 2012 which alleged ties between a top Philippine businessman Wilfredo D Keng and a high court judge. The controversial cyber-libel law that she is being prosecuted under was enacted four months after the story was written.

The libel case was first brought in 2017, but initially dismissed by the NBI. It was reopened in 2018.

Ressa’s arrest comes just two months after she turned herself in to authorities over charges of tax evasion at Rappler. Speaking on her release on bail in December, Ressa accused the Philippine government of trying to “intimidate and harass” journalists and “weaponising the rule of law”against its critics.

Rappler, which is one of the most influential news sites in the Philippines, has also been one of the news outlets most critical of Duterte’s administration since he took power in 2016. In particular it has scrutinised his government over the brutal war on drugs, which officially has taken more than 5,000 lives, though human rights groups allege the true figure is more than double that.

In response, Duterte’s administration has instigated seven separate cases against Rappler. The government banned Rappler’s political reporter from the presidential palace.

It has ordered the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to investigate Rappler for being “foreign-owned”, even going as far as revoking its licence, in a case that went all the way to the court of appeal. In November the department of justice confirmed it was charging Rappler with three counts of failure to file returns, and one count of tax evasion – all charges that Ressa denies. The charges carry heavy fines and jail sentences of up to 10 years.

Ressa’s refusal to back down has won her plaudits around the world. She was named a Time magazine person of the year in 2018, and won the 2018 Knight International Journalism award and this year’s prestigious Press Freedom award, given by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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