MANILA — Philippine journalist Maria Ressa was released on bail Thursday after spending the night in detention over years-old libel charges that rights groups and others have decried as the Philippine government’s latest attack on press freedom.
Ressa, chief executive of news site Rappler, paid more than $1,900 before a Manila regional court after an unexpected arrest Wednesday. The 55-year-old veteran journalist, who is also facing charges related to tax evasion and violation of foreign ownership laws, had spent the night at the National Bureau of Investigation.
Opposition lawmakers, human rights groups and press freedom organizations around the world have voiced their support for the journalist, part of an effort to spotlight President Rodrigo Duterte’s mounting attacks on press freedom and critics.
“My stay last night at the NBI really made me think: What is this all about?” Ressa said upon posting bail. “It’s about abuse of power and the weaponization of the law. This is not just about me, not just about Rappler.”
Her arraignment is set for March 1. The deliberation of her case is expected to test the independence of Philippine courts.
She was arrested on “cyber-libel” charges related to a story published in 2012, four months before the law was approved.
The government has maintained that her arrest has nothing to do with press freedom. Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a television interview Wednesday night that Ressa’s story was “clearly defamatory.”
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, she was CNN’s bureau chief in Manila.
Duterte is best known for his bloody war on drugs, which has resulted in about 5,000 deaths in police operations. However, up to an estimated 20,000 people have been killed in what the state calls “deaths under investigation,” which human rights watchdogs say include summary executions. Rappler has been at the forefront of this coverage of the human cost of Duterte’s war.
Under Duterte, opposition Sen. Leila de Lima has been jailed, and another critic, Maria Lourdes Sereno, was ousted last year as Supreme Court chief justice. Duterte also has slammed the Roman Catholic Church in the predominantly Catholic country.
“Ressa’s persecution is part of a broader campaign by the Duterte administration to harass and silence critics not only in the media, but in the legislature, the judiciary, civil society, and the Roman Catholic Church,” Human Rights Watch researcher Carlos H. Conde wrote in a dispatch.
The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the government to drop charges against Ressa and her firm. The group awarded Ressa a special Press Freedom Award last year. “The arrest of Maria Ressa is an outrage,” CPJ Board Chair Kathleen Carroll said in a statement. “The Philippines government needs to cease its multipronged attack on Rappler, its talented leader, and its brave staff.”
Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright tweeted that the arrest was “outrageous” and “must be condemned by all democratic nations.”
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was “deeply troubled.”
“A free press is a bedrock of democracy,” she said in a tweet. “Canada reiterates its call for due process to be respected and for journalists to be free from harassment and intimidation.”