MANILA — A journalist critical of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was arrested Wednesday in what critics are calling the latest assault on the free press in the Philippines.
An arrest warrant for “cyber libel” was served on Maria Ressa, head of the Rappler news site, at her office by plainclothes officers of the National Bureau of Investigation just before 5 p.m., the cutoff time for courts to process bail payments.
“These legal acrobatics show how far the government will go to silence journalists, including the pettiness of forcing me to spend the night in jail,” Rappler quoted Ressa as saying.
Her attorneys attempted to process bail at a night court in Manila, but their efforts were rejected by a judge. Ressa will spend at least one night at the National Bureau of Investigation, Rappler reported.
Ressa was part of a group of journalists, including slain Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who were collectively named Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year. Before founding Rappler in 2012, Ressa was CNN’s bureau chief in Manila.
She had been scheduled to give a talk on press freedom at the University of the Philippines on the evening of her arrest.
The Philippine Justice Department recommended last week the filing of charges against Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. under the cyber-libel law over a story published in May 2012. The law, however, was not passed until September 2012, months after the alleged offense was committed.
The complaint was filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng earlier this year, according to Rappler, reportedly because the story mentioned his alleged links to illegal drugs and human trafficking.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the arrest was part of standard procedure and that Ressa was free to post bail.
“This charge, as well as the tax evasion case, has nothing to do with press freedom,” Guevarra told The Post in a text message. “An outfit like Rappler is not one that could be easily intimidated by defamation cases, which are normal hazards of the journalists’ profession.”
In December, the award-winning, 55-year-old journalist had to post bail for charges of tax evasion. The government accused her company of sidestepping laws on foreign ownership.
In a statement, Rappler said Ressa did not even edit the story in question.
“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.”
Ressa and Rappler are at the center of a fight over press freedom in the Philippines, a longtime U.S. ally. Since winning the presidency in 2016, Duterte has consolidated power, to a large extent controlling the country’s legislature, high court and security forces.
The Philippine press has played a critical watchdog role — which has angered Duterte. He regularly denigrates the media, particularly journalists who have questioned his call to shoot and kill suspected drug users and dealers.
In his 2017 State of the Nation address, Duterte called out Rappler by name. Not long after, the company was investigated. In the years since, the company and Ressa, its outspoken head, have been dogged by legal trouble — charges that are widely seen as politically motivated.
Employees of Rappler, a digital newsroom of about 100 staffers, took to social media to broadcast the scene in the newsroom during the arrest. In a video posted by multimedia reporter Aika Rey on Facebook, an unidentified officer tells her to stop recording.
“We’re doing our job. I think this shouldn’t be posted anywhere else, because that’s basically our weapon — our identity. Do you get that?” the officer said. “Can you stop doing what you’re doing now? Is it okay? Tell this to your colleagues. Because, definitely, if we see our faces on the Net, you’ll be sorry. You’ve been warned. We’ll go after you.”
Rappler has distinguished itself for its hard-hitting reporting targeting abuses by Duterte’s government, particularly his campaign against drug dealers that has resulted in the deaths of thousands, often through extrajudicial methods. Duterte has repeatedly labeled the site “fake news.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines slammed the arrest as “a shameless act of persecution by a bully government.”
“It is clear this is part of the administration’s obsession to shut Rappler down and intimidate the rest of the independent Philippine media into toeing the lines,” it said. “Even as we are certain they will hold the line, we . . . urge all colleagues who value the work we do and the independence essential to it to circle the wagons and resist this blatant assault on our right and liberties.”
Emily Rauhala in Washington contributed to this report.