Maria Ressa's arrest part of broader gov't campaign, say rights groups

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Human rights groups slammed the arrest of Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa on Wednesday, February 13, over cyber libel charges.

Human Rights Watch, in a dispatch on Thursday, February 14, tagged Ressa's arrest as "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."

The attacks, the group added, "demand a global response."

"Governments concerned about the thousands killed in the 'drug war' and the media's ability to report on this and other abuses need to publicly demand Ressa's release and the dropping of all charges," HRW Asia Division's Carlos Conde said. 

Ressa stayed the night at the National Bureau of Investigation after the Pasay City Regional Trial Court refused to process her bail. She was arrested after office hours on Wednesday at the Rappler office.

The case stemmed from a story published in May 2012 or 4 months before the law she allegedly violated was enacted. (READ: Despite NBI flip-flop, DOJ to indict Rappler for cyber libel)

In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity, meanwhile, said that the arrest mirrors the familiar style of a Marcos dictatorship.

"The same advances President Duterte’s centerpiece objective of obliterating our democratic institutions, particularly independent media," the group said. "Press freedom has always been the first target of a government that’s ushering in a despot."

Amnesty International (AI) Philippines also condemned the "trumped-up libel charge." It called for authorities to end the harassment and repeal the "repressive law."

"This is brazenly politically motivated, and consistent with the authorities' threats and repeated targeting of Ressa and her team," AI Philippines director Butch Olano said.

"In a country where justice takes years to obtain, we see the charges against her being railroaded and the law being used to relentlessly intimidate and harass journalists for doing their jobs as truth-tellers," he added.

For National Union of Peoples' Lawyers president Edre Olalia, the charges and eventual arrest are "essentially undisguised attacks on press freedom and speech."

"Let there be no doubt about it: whether you are a senator, nun, lawyer, activist, human rights defender, or peace advocate, you will be in the crosshairs of government's whole coercive apparatus if you dissent or criticize so good that they will make you look so bad," he said in a statement. 

Here are other statements: 

Human Rights Online Philippines

Human Rights Online Philippines (HRonlinePH) today called on government authorities to immediately release Maria Ressa who was arrested yesterday, February 13, in connection with a cyber libel cased filed by the Department of Justice.

HRonlinePH stresses that the arrest of Maria Ressa shows the fragility of the government rather than strength. The arrest clearly shows systematic efforts by the government to quell press freedom. The arrest has fostered a climate of fear in which journalists and human rights defenders who are critical of the government do not know if, or when, they will face arrest or other forms of harassment.

We call on the government authorities to observe the rule of law by dropping the trumped-up charge against Maria Ressa and releasing her immediately from detention. Free Maria Ressa now!

Karapatan

The arrest of journalist Maria Ressa and the absurd charges against her and online news site Rappler are all about freedom of expression in the Philippines.

It is indicative of a vindictive government which is intent on dominating all forms of media with its own twisted narratives, while simultaneously cutting off any platform for others to express alternative opinions. Evidence-based findings that prove critical to the anti-people campaigns of the regime are shut down while fake news and deliberate lies are massively peddled by state-backed keyboard warriors.

This recent incident shows how draconian laws such as the Anti-Cybercrime Act and provisions regarding criminalization of libel are being used to persecute critics of whoever is in power. It shows how this administration can suppress fundamental freedoms through the justice system and distort it to stifle basic rights, including press freedom.

The arrest and detention of Ressa is the latest in the multitude of examples of the authoritarian path treaded by the Duterte regime.

Extrajudicial killings of the poor are a daily fare while murderers in uniform are left off the hook. Arrests of dissenters, critics, peace advocates, and anyone on trumped up charges are heralded as this administration’s legacy while plundering politicians are dancing their way back into power. Indigenous peoples, peasants, and Moros, are killed, tortured and harassed in Mindanao, Negros, Samar, Bicol and the rest of the country. Alternative media and critical voices are subjected to online attacks. All these affect the exercise of people's freedom of expression, and yes, the most basic right to live a dignified life.

Our only recourse is to fight back, online and offline, to defend and uphold our basic rights and freedoms.

Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights

Aside from cyber libel, Ressa faces 5 tax cases and an alleged violation of the anti-dummy law. She posted bail twice in December 2018 – one at the Pasig City Regional Trial Court Branch 265 and at the Court of Tax Appeals. (READ: 'Persecution by a bully government': Journalists, advocates slam arrest of Maria Ressa)

The charges against Ressa are not the only instances of harassment and intimidation against Rappler by the government. Its reporters and correspondents have also been barred from covering all presidential events across the country. (READ: TIMELINE: Malacañang's evolving statements on Rappler ban– Rappler.com

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.

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