Ms. Ressa, who recently was honored with a string of journalism awards and was named a Time magazine Person of the Year in 2018, founded Rappler in 2012 with others and has built it into a tough and probing news organization, fearless in its coverage of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, especially his drug war — which has killed thousands, often by extrajudicial execution. Mr. Duterte has openly denounced journalists and outlets as “fake news” and sought to sow the same kind of distrust in the news media that President Trump has in the United States.
The latest charges are based on a repressive Filipino cybercrime law, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2014, that made online libel a criminal offense and punishment severe — up to 12 years in prison. The case involves a complaint of libel against Rappler filed by a businessman whom the news organization had reported in 2012 was linked to illegal activities such as human trafficking and drug smuggling. Ms. Ressa pointed out that the Rappler story was published before the cyber law took effect. “There was yet no crime of cyber libel to be committed,” she said. The new charge is based on a 2014 update of the original story, which the government said was actionable. Ms. Ressa was released Thursday after her lawyer posted bail.
Autocrats such as Mr. Duterte don’t pay much attention to the niceties of legal procedure. In the latest wave of democratic rollback, they have modernized their repression. They don’t feel they have to be like Joseph Stalin and set up vast prison systems. Instead, they sow doubt and shake public confidence by periodically arresting journalists and lambasting their outlets with insults. The new arrest marks the second wave of intimidation in recent months against Rappler; earlier, the Filipino government charged the outlet with violating tax laws using a dubious interpretation of the rules governing investment.
These assaults can be terribly draining for news organizations that often operate on a shoestring. Mr. Duterte, like so many other autocrats, appears to believe he can act with impunity against the news media, that no one will push back. To her credit, Ms. Ressa and Rappler journalists have refused to give in to the bullying. Unfortunately, under Mr. Trump, the United States has failed to find its voice against such nasty repression, a serious lapse of the nation’s long tradition of opposing dictatorship. Now is not too late to resist Mr. Duterte’s corrosive tactics, which so badly undermine democracy and an open society.