IT SURPRISED no one when Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ autocratic-minded president, found himself at odds with the country’s most prominent journalist within months of his 2016 election. Maria Ressa, co-founder of the website Rappler and winner of multiple international awards, doggedly reported on Mr. Duterte’s bloody and extralegal campaign against suspected drug traffickers, as well as a network of violence-inciting Facebook accounts linked to the president.
What ought to be shocking to democratic nations was Ms. Ressa’s conviction Monday on libel charges — the first of eight court cases against her orchestrated by the Duterte government. A court verdict that could lead to a prison sentence of up to seven years for her and a colleague showed that Mr. Duterte is succeeding in compromising the Philippines’ justice system, even as he personally flouts the rule of law.
The prosecution was defective on multiple grounds. Ms. Ressa was charged for an eight-year-old Rappler article she did not write about a businessman alleged to be linked to drug trafficking. The libel law used against her was passed after the article was published — and its provision of jail time for libel violates international convenants that the Philippines has ratified. Though she was released on bail pending appeal, Ms. Ressa still faces additional charges, including of tax evasion — all of them concocted to silence her and Rappler. The verdict, said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, “basically kills freedom of speech and of the press.”
The case is one of several recent steps by Mr. Duterte toward dismantling the Philippines’ three-decade-old democracy. Last month, the country’s biggest broacasting network, ABS-CBN, was ordered off the air after the Duterte-controlled Congress failed to renew its license; Human Rights Watch said the closure “reeks of a political vendetta.” Two weeks ago, Congress passed a counterterrorism law that will remove legal protections from groups the government labels as terrorists.
Acting under the cover of the covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Duterte is seeking to obliterate checks on his power, whether from the media, Congress or courts. It’s a campaign that ought to be strongly opposed by the United States, for which the Philippines had been, until Mr. Duterte’s arrival, a crucial democratic ally in Southeast Asia. Yet, despite the president’s outspoken anti-Americanism, the Trump administration has been largely silent. President Trump evidently admires Mr. Duterte’s strongman instincts; at one of their meetings, Mr. Trump laughed approvingly when Mr. Duterte referred to the press corps as “spies.”
The State Department issued one statement saying it was “concerned” about the prosecution of Ms. Ressa, who holds U.S. citizenship, and that was 15 months ago. The Philippines’ slide toward dictatorship deserves much greater resistance from Washington — if not from the White House, then from Congress.