"These flimsy charges are clearly politically motivated. Maria Ressa's arrest is the latest in a long line of attacks on independent media in the Philippines, which is reeling from sustained harassment under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. It shows the extent to which the Philippine government is willing to go in its bid to silence critics within the media. All charges against Maria Ressa must be dropped immediately," said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian parliament, echoing calls from amongst the Philippine media community.
On 13 February, at about 5pm, Maria Ressa was arrested by officers from the National Bureau of Investigation for allegedly committing libel under Section 4(C)(4) of the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act – a law that has previously been criticized by human rights organizations as a serious threat to freedom of expression. She was released on bail today.
The case stems from a 2012 article published by Rappler, claiming links between a businessman and the then-chief justice Renato Corona. The story was published four months before the Cybercrime Prevention Act was enacted, raising questions of the law's retroactive application and its implications.
Rappler has repeatedly been a target of harassment and intimidation for its critical coverage of President Duterte's brutal so-called 'war on drugs'. In November 2018, the Department of Justice filed tax evasion charges against the news outlet and Maria Ressa, threatening to shut down the company and place its CEO in prison.
"This latest charge is part of ongoing judicial harassment against Rappler and its staff. The Philippine government must stop abusing laws in an attempt to intimidate journalists who are merely doing their jobs," said Charles Santiago.
In spite of these attempts, APHR noted the robust and commendable response from the wider Philippine press and journalist community, many of which came out quickly in solidarity with Maria Ressa, denouncing her arrest as politically motivated and calling for her release.
The Philippines remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work in. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented a total of 40 unsolved murders of media workers in the country since 2008.
The charges against Rappler and Maria Ressa reflect a wider regional pattern, as media across Southeast Asia is increasingly under attack. In September 2018, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years' imprisonment on outdated national security laws, ostensibly for their role in investigating a massacre of Rohingya in Myanmar, while press freedom in Cambodia has all but collapsed after the government's unprecedented clampdown on dissent and opposition.
"Freedom of information is crucial in any functioning democracy and safeguards a citizen's ability to make an informed choice about their own future. Governments need to recognize the vital role independent media outlets play and take all necessary steps to ensure a safe environment for journalists to work without undue interference," concluded Charles Santiago.