The case, under a controversial law penalising online libel, stems from a news story published before law was passed.
Maria Ressa, an award-winning Philippine journalist, has been freed on bail following an arrest that prompted international condemnation and allegations that she is being targeted over her news platform’s criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The 55-year-old editor of the Rappler website spent the night in detention at the National Bureau of Investigation in the capital, Manila, after being arrested late on Wednesday on a “cyber libel” charge that carries a 12-year prison sentence.
Ressa and the site she heads, known for its tough scrutiny of Duterte’s administration and his controversial crackdown on illicit drugs that has killed thousands of people, have both been previously hit with separate tax evasion charges.
“It’s about two things: abuse of power and weaponisation of the law,” an emotional Ressa told journalists on Thursday as she stepped out of a Manila court where she paid 100,000 pesos ($1,900), the sixth time she has posted bail to avoid detention.
“What we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts to our democracy,” added Ressa, who was named a Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018 for her journalism.
— Maria Ressa (@mariaressa) February 14, 2019
Press freedom advocates and human rights groups said Ressa had been arrested on trumped-up charges aimed at intimidating journalists who criticise Duterte’s rule – an accusation denied by the government of the Philippines.
“Ms Ressa being a media practitioner and a high ranking officer of a media outfit critical of the president’s programmes and policies has nothing to do with the present circumstances she is currently in,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said, adding that the administration respected the judiciary and did not meddle in how it handles cases in courts.
“Freedom of expression, as critics of this administration erroneously suggest, is absolutely unrelated with Ms Ressa’s probable violation of the country’s laws,” Panelo added.
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 offences 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.
Rappler concedes the story was updated, but notes it was to fix a typo and no substantive changes were made.
The businessman who sued Rappler, Wilfredo Keng, on Thursday welcomed the charges as he said the website “destroyed my reputation and endangered my life”.
Duterte has lashed out at other critical media outfits, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and broadcaster ABS-CBN.
He had threatened to go after their owners over alleged unpaid taxes or block the network’s franchise renewal application.
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 the site is not anti-Duterte, saying it is just doing its job to hold the government to account.
‘Brazenly politically motivated’
In a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines condemned the arrest of Ressa as “a shameless act of persecution by a bully government”.
“This government, led by a man who has proven averse to criticism and dissent, now proves it will go to ridiculous lengths to forcibly silence a critical media and stifle free expression and thought,” it said.
Amnesty International Philippines also 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 added.
The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of media personnel, also denounced Ressa’s detention.
“The arrest of Maria Ressa is an outrageous attempt by the Philippines government to silence a news organisation that has been courageously investigating corruption and human rights violations in the country,” Ravi R Prasad, IPI director of advocacy, said in a statement.
“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.”