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Journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa arrested on libel charge

Veteran journalist and CEO of Rappler Maria Ressa was arrested on Wednesday (13 February) at her office, in connection with a “cyber-libel” case filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng in 2017.

Rappler, which has been critical of the government in Philippines, said that the charges were over an article published in 2012, updated in 2014, about Keng’s alleged ties to a then-judge in the nation’s top court. The article also cited intelligence linking him to illegal activities, such as human and drug trafficking.

The case comes under a controversial “cyber-libel” law, which came into force in September 2012, four months after the article was published. Officials first filed the case against her in 2017, but it was disregarded by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) because the one-year limit for bringing libel cases had lapsed. However, the NBI reopened the case in March last year.

According to Rappler, officers from the NBI clad in civilian clothes came to their office to serve the arrest warrant.

As among those named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018, Ms Ressa has constantly clashed with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.

This latest arrest comes just two months after Ms Ressa posted bail on tax fraud charges, which she claims are also “politically motivated, and they are manufactured”. Both Ms Ressa and Rappler were indicted in October for allegedly attempting to evade taxes by not reporting gain of almost US$3 million (S$4 million) in the company’s 2015 tax returns.

If she’s convicted of just one count of tax fraud, she could serve up to 10 years in jail. The cyber-libel charge carries a maximum sentence of 12 years.

Addressing reporters after her arrest, the veteran journalist said she was “shocked that the rule of law has been broken to a point that I can’t see it”.

Prior to the arrest, video streamed on Facebook showed officials speaking to Ms Ressa, while a few of the site’s journalists live-tweeted what was happening.

Miriam Grace Go, Rappler’s news editor, tweeted that NBI agents had led the journalist out of Rappler’s offices, and right after that, Rappler’s staffs looked at finding a judge who would allow her to post bail, despite it being the evening.

However, reporter Sofia Tomacruz tweeted that the judge had refused their request, meaning that Ms Ressa will have to spend the night in jail.

“No amount of legal cases, black propaganda and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line,” Ms Ressa said. “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.”

Commenting to reporters on the current case of Ms Ressa, Mr Duterte’s spokesman, Mr Salvador Panelo, told that the case was not based on any violation of press freedom. “Simply, she committed a crime and the court finds probable cause. And that’s why she is now being charged,” he said.

However, The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (Wan-Ifra) and the World Editors Forum (WEF) called on the Philippines to drop the charges, saying that the charges were “appalling”.

“We are appalled by this latest attempt at harassment and intimidation of a critical independent news outlet and its courageous leader,” said Wan-Ifra CEO Vincent Peyrègne.

He added, “Maria Ressa and Rappler have been battling against an increasingly hostile administration for a number of years, yet have defiantly continued reporting into some of the worst abuses of power seen in the Philippines in recent times.