February 14, 2019
By Martin Petty and Neil Jerome Morales
MANILA (Reuters) – Lawyers for a Philippine news website that has locked horns with President Rodrigo Duterte sought bail on Thursday after the arrest of its chief executive on libel charges drew condemnation from free press advocates.
Maria Ressa, the award-winning head of news platform Rappler, was served a warrant live on television at her office on Wednesday afternoon for what media watchdogs said were trumped-up charges aimed at intimidating journalists who challenge Duterte’s rule.
Ressa’s lawyer Jose Jesus Disini said he expected her to be released early on Thursday afternoon.
“The only thing that could possibly delay her release is procedural,” he told CNN Philippines.
Ressa is accused of cyber libel over a 2012 Rappler article, which was updated in 2014, that linked a Filipino businessman to murder, human trafficking and drug smuggling. Rappler cited information contained in a 2002 intelligence report but did not say which agency compiled it.
The businessman’s lawyer says the information was wrong and that the article was defamatory.
Duterte has made no secret of his annoyance at Rappler and has sparred frequently with its reporters, who are known for scrutinizing his polices and questioning the accuracy of his sweeping, often bellicose statements. Such scrutiny has seen Duterte’s detractors engulfed by tides of online anger.
Rappler’s reporting has accused his administration of creating a social media “ecosystem” designed to defend Duterte and threaten and discredit opponents, which the government denies.
He once suggested Rappler was American-owned and could therefore be linked to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He called Rappler a “fake news outlet” and banned a reporter from covering his events.
However, Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said the libel case had nothing to do with the government and that Duterte had no interest in punishing journalists who challenged him.
“That’s absolutely unrelated. The president has been criticized and he does not bother,” Panelo told DZMM radio.
Ressa spent the night in a room at the National Bureau of Investigation headquarters in the capital, Manila, and was unable to post bail because the court was closed. Ressa says she has been released on bail five times in the past.
Francis Lim, a Rappler legal counsel, said the libel case was suddenly revived after it had originally been dismissed for lacking merit.
“It means that the law can be twisted by the powers as a weapon against journalists who expose their wrongdoing to the public,” Lim said in a text message.
Ressa’s detention was criticized by journalists and activists at home and abroad. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said it was an “outrageous” arrest that “must be condemned by all democratic nations”.
London-based Amnesty International said Duterte’s administration was using the law to “relentlessly intimidate and harass journalists”. Dabet Panelo of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it would backfire and called for protests on Friday.
Rappler is no stranger to legal challenges. Its ongoing cases include one on tax evasion and another over its ownership but it denies wrongdoing.
(Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Paul Tait)