“I will do the right thing,” Maria Ressa, chief executive of the Philippine news site Rappler, told reporters as she was led away by police officers, having been served a warrant for her arrest in her own newsroom.
Agents from the Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigations arrested Ressa concerning a continuing and much inflated digital libel case on Wednesday last week in Manila.
She was freed a day later having paid a bond of 100,000 Philippine pesos (US$1,909), the sixth time the veteran journalist has been obliged to post bail.
Illustration: Mountain People
In what has been a damaging, but depressingly predictable blow to press freedom in the Philippines, it is yet another warning sign that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is accelerating toward an all-out authoritarian state.
Ressa is not the first or even most high-profile of the president’s critics to be jailed on bogus charges.
Philippine Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce critic of Duterte’s “war on drugs” that triggered widespread condemnation for its human rights violations, is currently in prison for reasons which Amnesty International have described as “pure fiction.”
A second senator and similarly staunch critic, Antonio Trillanes, was arrested in September last year on an archaic charge of rebellion after accusing Duterte and his son of corruption.
However, if found guilty, Ressa could face up to 15 years in prison, making this the most flagrant abuse of Duterte’s power to date.
The Philippines already has a disgraceful history of failing to protect its journalists. In 2009, the Maguindanao massacre — now known as the “single deadliest event for journalists in history” — rocked the country, after a group, including 34 journalists on their way to report on a local election story, were murdered.
Their bodies were found mutilated and dumped in a shallow grave.
Despite this track record, Duterte has manically swung between courting the papers when he wants his machismo-drenched speeches covered, to all-out disdain for journalists.
Since the start of his presidency, Duterte has foamed at the mouth referring to reporters as “spies,” used his state of the nation speeches to rant about “fake news” and warned that journalists are not safe from assassination. Sound familiar?
However, there is something about Duterte’s pursuit of Ressa, in particular, that feels deeply personal.
For many Filipinos and seasoned journalists, including Ressa, who spent 20 years working as an investigative reporter, the wounds of former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship are still fresh, but as Duterte’s man-of-the-people act starts to slip, the “Trump of the East” is on course to surpass the late despot’s infamy.
Ressa’s company, Rappler, which started life as a modest Facebook page before launching as a news Web site in 2012, has become one of the loudest voices of dissent within the Philippines’ increasingly cowed media landscape.
The platform’s progressive coverage of everything from the country’s punitive abortion laws to the escalating methamphetamine epidemic have, quite rightly, been praised by international media.
However, it was during Duterte’s pursuit of the presidency that the publication gained serious traction, acting as a voice of sanity in what was becoming a tidal wave of populism for the future president and his attacks on traditional media.
In the Philippines, the “social networking capital of the world,” it was Rappler that found itself front and center contending with the rabid pro-Duterte coverage flooding the Facebook timelines of Filipinos, in what would become an ominous precursor to Trump supporters weaponizing social media with the same success.
Ressa lamented that the Philippines had become “a showcase for the destruction Facebook can enable” and estimated that, at one point, she was receiving up to 90 abusive messages an hour.
Duterte’s head of communications, Martin Andanar, an exceptionally slimy former news anchor, has become an expert at peddling an ocean of misinformation on Philippine social media while intimidating what little is left of the country’s independent press in the process.
In an article for Time magazine, which named Ressa as one of its 2018 people of the year, Ressa denounced Duterte and Andanar, as well as the social media company’s involvement.
“The attacks on Facebook are insidious and extremely personal, from the way I look and sound to threats of rape and murder. As a former war-zone correspondent, I have been in the line of fire, but nothing prepared me for this,” she told the magazine.
When contrasted with the out and out vitriol and justified derision directed at Trump’s government by much of the US media, Ressa’s reasonable holding power to account seems almost tame.
Rappler has done nothing but report plainly on facts, which makes the intimidation and now arrest of Ressa all the more unsettling.
Her treatment should anger journalists around the world, not just the local reporters who have to constantly look over their shoulders.
Ressa’s fate is at risk of getting lost in the maelstrom that is the global hysteria around fake news, while despotic leaderships from Venezuela to Myanmar to Saudi Arabia muzzle anyone who criticizes them.
We must continue to hold a spotlight on Ressa’s treatment, because her courage and dignity alone will not be enough to save her from being silenced.
Joanna Fuertes-Knight is a British-Philippine filmmaker and journalist. She has produced documentaries for VICE and the BBC, with a focus on race, women’s health and the politics of Southeast Asia.
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