Global Condemnation After Journalist Who Blamed Trump for Duterte's Attacks on Free Press Arrested in Philippines
Just a few months after directly blaming U.S. President Donald Trump for fueling crackdowns on the press in her country, award-winning Filipina journalist Maria Ressa—a long-time critic of the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte—was arrested Wednesday for what reporters and media advocates around the world denounced as “trumped-up and politically-motivated” libel charges designed to intimidate and silence Ressa and her colleagues.
In November, while accepting an award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Ressa said: “Our problems are partly caused by yours: American social media technology platforms, once empowering, now weaponized against journalists, activists, and citizens, spreading lies across borders; and, a president so much like ours whose attacks against the press (and women) give permission to autocrats (like ours) to unleash the dark side of humanity and extend their already vast powers with impunity, especially in countries where institutions have crumbled.”
Ressa is far alone in calling out Trump for emboldening hostility toward journalists. In Reporters Sans Frontières’ (RSF) lastest World Press Freedom Index, U.S. ranking declined due to Trump, and the group warned the “downward trend has drastic consequences at the international level.” Just this week, a BBC cameraman was violently attacked at a Trump rally in Texas after “the crowd had been whipped up into a frenzy against the media by Trump and other speakers.”
In the Philippines, as the Washington Post reports, plainclothes officers arrived at the office of Rappler, of which Ressa is CEO and executive editor, Wednesday evening. She and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. were arrested following a complaint from businessman Wilfredo Keng about an article published in May of 2012 that noted Keng’s alleged ties to illegal drugs and human trafficking. The “cyber libel” law they are accused of violating was enacted four months after the story ran.
Ressa’s arrest ignited a flurry of fresh concerns about Trump’s attacks on the news media—from popularizing the phrases “fake news” and “enemy of the people” to laughing when Duterte denounced journalists as spies during a 2017 bilateral meeting—as well as the dangers of the U.S. president’s high praise for Duterte, notorious for his vicious drug war on which Rappler has extensively reported:
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RSF secretary general Christophe Deloire declared that Ressa’s arrest “is an obvious violation of press freedom which should be denounced by all the heads of states and governments which can exercise influence on Rodrigo Duterte.” He added that she has the full support of RSF’s Commission on Information and Democracy, of which she is a member.
“This is brazenly politically motivated, and consistent with the authorities’ threats and repeated targeting of Ressa and her team. Authorities should end this harassment, drop the charges, and repeal this repressive law,” Amnesty International Philippines section director Butch Olano said in a statement.
“In a country where justice takes years to obtain,” Olano noted, “we see the charges against her being railroaded and the law being used to relentlessly intimidate and harass journalists for doing their jobs as truth-tellers.”
Ressa’s arrest on Wednesday comes after Duterte’s government—in a move also widely decried by journalists across the globe as an intimidation effort—hit her and Rappler with five charges of tax fraud, which could land the CEO behind bars for up to a decade. Ressa and the online outlet deny evading taxes.
She was arrested over the tax charges in early December, after returning to the Philippines from a trip to the United States, where she visited Washington, D.C. to accept the 2018 Knight International Journalism award as well as New York City to accept the CPJ’s 2018 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award. She was also honored, alongside other journalists reporting in increasingly dangerous conditions, as TIME magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year.
The Duterte government’s intimidation tactics, meanwhile, don’t appear to have fazed the decorated CEO and her fellow reporters of Rappler, who pledged in a statement on Wednesday to “continue to do our jobs as journalists. We will continue to tell the truth and report what we see and hear.”
Ressa, for her part, added: “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.”