On Friday, plainclothes officers of the Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigation served an arrest warrant for “cyber libel” at her office, just before 5 p.m., which is the cutoff time to process bail payments.
Her lawyers tried to process bail at a night court but were rebuffed by a judge. Instead of delivering a talk on press freedom, as she planned to do, she was taken into custody.
Ressa is one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists and a vocal advocate for press freedom.
She served as CNN’s bureau chief in Manila and went on to found a digital media start-up, Rappler, in 2012. In the years since, Rappler has become one of the most influential English-language outlets in the Philippines.
In the aftermath of Duterte’s election in 2016, Ressa and Rappler were among the first to sound the alarm on how fake news, particularly fake news on Facebook, shaped the Philippine election — a line of coverage that proved particularly prescient.
The outlet has also been at the forefront of covering Duterte’s call to shoot and kill suspected drug users and dealers. Her team of reporters has investigated allegations of police misconduct and highlighted the lack of justice for victims of the police-led campaign.
One of the paper’s most dogged chroniclers of Duterte’s Philippines, Pia Ranada, was eventually banned from reporting from the Philippine equivalent of the White House, Malacañang Palace.
How did she run afoul of Philippine authorities?
Duterte has a complicated relationship with the news media. Like populist authoritarian leaders elsewhere, he alternately basks in the spotlight and dismisses reporters as peddlers of “fake news.”
Duterte has made it clear that he does not like Rappler. In his 2017 State of the Union address, he called out the company by name, implying, without citing evidence, that it was foreign owned.
Not long after, the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into the company’s ownership structure. The commission later revoked Rappler’s license, a decision that was denounced by journalists and rights groups.
In December of last year, Ressa turned herself in on charges of tax evasion. The charges, which she has denied, were filed while she was overseas receiving a press freedom award. When she returned to Manila, she posted bail, avoiding jail time.
Now, there are more charges. The Philippine Justice Department recommended last week the filing of charges against Ressa and a former researcher under cyber libel law over a story published in May 2012. However, the law was not passed until September 2012.
The complaint was filed by a businessman, Wilfredo Keng, who reportedly took issue with a Rappler story about him. In a statement, Rappler said Ressa did not edit the story in question and warned the charges could set a troubling precedent.
“This is a dangerous precedent that puts anyone — not just the media — who publishes anything online perennially in danger of being charged with libel,” the company said. “No one is safe.”
What does this mean for press freedom?
Philippine authorities have denied there are political motivations behind any of the moves, but both within and beyond the Philippines, the targeting of a prominent Duterte critic is seen as a test of Philippine democracy.
Since winning the presidency in 2016, Duterte has consolidated his sway over security forces, Congress and the Supreme Court. The country’s free press is seen as a critical check on his power — should it remain free, that is.
Ressa has played a key role in raising awareness about threats to journalists at home and abroad. For her work, she was part of a group of reporters named Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year. She was also part of a group invited to New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve alongside the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Whatever the outcome of the cases, reporters and rights groups worry that the sight of one of the country’s most influential journalists being escorted to jail will have a chilling effect in the Philippines and across the region, a setback in what has been a dangerous, deadly year for journalists around the world.
In a statement, Rappler promised to press on with its reporting. “This is another of several attempts to intimidate us, it will not succeed, as past attempts have shown. Maria Ressa and Rappler will continue to do our jobs as journalists. We will continue to tell the truth and report what we see and hear.”
The statement closed with a quote from Ressa: “We are not intimidated. No amount of legal cases, black propaganda and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line.”