You may have seen Maria Ressa in Times Square this past New Year’s Eve, when she was honored for her defense of a free press. Today, she turned up in footage of a very different kind, when journalists from her news site, Rappler, livestreamed videos of her arrest. Plainclothes government security officers entered the newsroom today and served her with an arrest warrant on trumped-up defamation charges from a government determined to silence her.
Ressa — who was my colleague back when we both worked at CNN a few years ago — has become one of the most visible defenders of press freedom anywhere. And though the government of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is going to great lengths to stop her, it’s also inadvertently making sure the entire world keeps a close eye on her fate.
As well we should. Ressa, one of Rappler’s co-founders, is fighting for the right to give citizens access to fact-based journalism unfettered by government intimidation. But you don’t have to be from the Philippines to understand that we all have a stake in the outcome.
Duterte, who has unleashed an extrajudicial war on drugs that has left thousands of people dead, cannot stand the scrutiny of journalists. “Just because you’re a journalist,” he snapped during a news conference, “you’re not exempted from assassination.” Filipino journalists fear the president wants his supporters to start killing journalists.
Normally the United States would be at the forefront of global condemnation of Duterte’s persecution of Ressa and other Filipino journalists. But President Trump is apparently an admirer of Duterte, with whom he claims to have “a great relationship.” He may, in fact, find it pleasing to know that his Philippines counterpart has referred to Rappler as a “fake news outlet," while Duterte’s supporters set up real false news sites that Facebook blocked. In a recent interview in the Oval Office, Trump was asked if he knew the impact his attacks on the media are having on press freedom around the world. He seemed to exult in the use of the label: “’I do notice that people are declaring more and more fake news, where they go, ‘Fake news!’”
Journalists around the world are feeling the effects. Accepting the Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists last year, Ressa noted that the United States has “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.”
Duterte’s legal assaults on Ressa and Rappler have been relentless. The charges against her this week are based on a seven-year-old article that reported that the car driven by the then-chief justice during his impeachment had belonged to a well-known businessman. The businessman sued for defamation, not denying the claims but objecting to his depiction in the piece. Duterte’s Department of Justice has now charged Ressa with violating a cyber-libel law that was enacted four months after the article was written.
When Ressa tried to post bail, the judge did not allow it, forcing her to spend the night in jail.
Few people believe the government is seeking justice. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines called it a “shameless act of persecution by a bully government,” describing the president as “a man has proven averse to criticism and dissent [who] will go to ridiculous lengths … to stifle free expression and thought.”
The journalists’ union vowed to defend its members against intimidation. But the legal troubles for Ressa — who was named one of Time magazine’s Persons of the Year in 2018 — are sure to continue.
Incredibly, she and Rappler face five other cases from the government, which has already tried to shut down the site before, suspending its operating license and accusing it of tax code and securities violations. Ressa had already been served with arrest papers before and posted bail twice in December.
Initially, Duterte seemed to love Rappler. He shunned traditional outlets and campaigned on the Web. Rappler gave him vast access to social media, whose power had not been identified by other candidates. But Duterte turned against the site and its leader when it became clear that Ressa and her band of fearless reporters would not serve as cheerleaders. Instead, Rappler set out to report the truth, exposing the president’s brutal drug war. Then Duterte turned on Rappler, claiming without basis, among other things, that the site is funded by the CIA.
The president is facing off against other media outlets. He has already announced that he will try to block next year’s license renewal by the country’s largest television entertainment and news network, ABS-CBN. “I will not let that pass. Your franchise will end,” he said after it aired an ad paid for by one of his critics.
But his most personal animosity is reserved for Ressa, whose name he has now helped make familiar to millions around the world. The diminutive Ressa, it seems, terrifies the tough-guy president. Duterte appears implacable in his determination to silence her. But Ressa looks equally committed to defending our right to fact-based journalism.