Fri, Feb 15, 2019 - Page 1 News List

Philippine journalist Ressa freed on bail amid condemnation


Online news site Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa, center, arrives to post bail at a court in Manila yesterday.

Photo: EPA-EFE

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa was yesterday freed on bail following an arrest that sparked international censure and allegations that she is being targeted over her news site’s criticism of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Ressa, 55, spent a night in detention after authorities arrested the veteran reporter at her Manila office on Wednesday in a sharp increase of government pressure on her and her Web site, Rappler.

The site and Ressa have been hit with tax evasion charges and now a libel case after clashing repeatedly with Duterte over his deadly crackdown on narcotics that has killed thousands.

“The message that the government is sending is very clear ... be silent or you’re next,” an emotional Ressa told reporters outside a Manila court yesterday.

She paid a bond of 100,000 pesos (US$1,909), the sixth time since December last year that she has posted bail on a government case.

“I am appealing to you not to be silent, even if — and especially if — you’re next,” said Ressa, who was last year named a Time magazine Person of the Year for her journalism.

International condemnation from dignitaries, as well as press freedom and human rights groups, has poured in since plainclothes agents appeared at Rappler to serve an arrest warrant.

The libel case against Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr stems from a 2012 report 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 offenses ranging from harassment to child pornography.

Ressa’s team has argued that 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.

“In essence, in the contemplation of the law, it is a new article because of the modification, republication,” said Markk Perete, a spokesman for Philippine Department of Justice prosecutors. “That is deemed as a new article.”

Rappler has conceded that the story was updated, but said that it was to fix a typo and no substantive changes were made.

Ressa’s lawyer, J.J. Disini, said that he would formally ask the court within the week to dismiss the case, as the publication and the modification were made more than a year ago.

The maximum period set by law for a legal action to be taken has already lapsed, he said.

“That’s disincentive for people to speak out,” Disini told reporters. “I think there would be grounds to raise these issues in the [Philippine] Supreme Court.”

The businessman who accused Rappler, Wilfredo Keng, yesterday welcomed the charges, saying that the Web site “destroyed my reputation and endangered my life.”

Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo rejected allegations that the arrest had political motivations.

“Maria Ressa’s claim that this is an assault on freedom of expression or freedom of the press has no basis,” Panelo told Manila’s DWFM radio in an interview, adding that neither the president nor his allies filed the libel case.

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