On February 13, 2019, Maria Ressa was taken into custody for cyber libel. This is not the first time that Ressa – and her digital publication Rappler – have come under fire during Philippine President Duterte’s reign.
She was freed on bail on bail later after her arrest sparked international censure and allegations she is being targeted over her news site’s criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The Coalition For Women In Journalism has condemned “the series of attacks and intimidations on Maria Ressa, and her resilient media organization Rappler that has been covering the important and much-censored stories in the Philippines”.
The coalition has urged media owners, and workers to follow Ressa and Rappler’s work. It has urged all members of the industry to create a pressure on President Rodrigo Roa Dutert’s government “to stop intimidating journalists and open his policies for a transparent media in the country”.
The case in question relates to a story published seven years ago, when Rappler first started out. Ressa has neither written nor edited the story – the authorities have moved against her despite this.
Ressa created Rappler in 2012 with three other women journalists. The portal was groundbreaking, introducing itself to a world not yet digitized. Rappler was originally frequented more by a younger audience; however, today the portal is widely consumed across the country.
Four months after it was created, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 was signed into law. It has been heavily criticized for its vague language and loopholes. When it was first enacted, the law was slapped with a restraining order. However, In 2014 the Supreme Court gave it the go ahead with a few minor changes.
Using the law, Keng filed a lawsuit for libel against Rappler in 2017. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) first decided it held no merit, and later retracted their own statement, subsequently, the NBI recommended that the Department of Justice move against Rappler.
The cyber libel lawsuit isn’t the only problem the portal has been facing. Since 2017, President Duterte’s efforts to make an example out of Ressa and Rappler have intensified. In July, 2017, Duterte used his State of the Union speech to declare that the publication was funded and owned by the United States. “Not only is Rappler’s news fake, it being Filipino is also fake,” he went on to claim.
By August 2017, The Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began investigating the portal, and by January 2018, Rappler’s registration was cancelled. Rappler has only been able to continue disseminating news because the decision is under appeal. A statement on the website notes that, “The SEC’s kill order revoking Rappler’s license to operate is the first of its kind in history – both for the Commission and for Philippine media.”
Not long after, the SEC launched another investigation, accusing Rappler of tax evasion worth $3 million. The Department of Justice filed multiple tax-related cases. In November 2018, Ressa turned herself in after an arrest warrant was issued against her. As of February 15, 2019, The Court of Tax Appeals 1st Division has denied Rappler’s appeal into the case.
In February 2018, Rappler’s reporters were barred from the Presidential Palace, and forced to rely on live coverage of any presidential address for their reports. The cyber libel charge is only the latest of attacks.
The current government is using anything and everything to destabilize media in the country. Where online trolls fail, legal threats and intimidation succeed. Duterte on the other hand is insisting he’s had no part to play in Ressa’s arrest.
Over the years, Ressa has become a powerful journalist, and amassed global support for her work. We have no doubt women journalists in similar situations would face tremendous difficulty in ensuring that their voices were heard.
Ressa is expected to be arraigned on March 1.