Filipino journalist Maria Ressa (center) of online news site Rappler is accompanied by her lawyers and fellow journalists after a warrant for her arrest was served in Manila on Feb. 13. (Photo by Jire Carreon)
A Filipino journalist who heads a news website critical of the policies of President Rodrigo Duterte’s government spent a night in jail after state agents arrested her in Manila on Feb. 13.
Maria Ressa, chief executive and executive editor of Rappler, spent the night at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) after she was served an arrest warrant for cyber libel.
A statement by Rappler said its lawyers tried to post bail, which is allowed under the rules of court, but the night judge refused to accept bail.
By midnight, about 50 journalists, artists and students were holding a picket outside the NBI gates in Manila calling Ressa’s arrest an attack on press freedom in the Philippines.
Ressa finally posted bail of US$2,000 before a Manila court on Feb. 14, allowing her release after a night in detention.
"I'm just shocked that the rule of law has been broken to a point that I can't see it," said Ressa after her arrest. "I will do the right thing. I will keep going."
The arrest stemmed from a case filed by a private complainant, Wilfredo Keng, seven years after an allegedly offensive article appeared on Rappler.
Its publication occurred months before the passage of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. Investigators dismissed the case last year only to have it resurrected last month.
Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of Manila issued the arrest warrant after the Department of Justice claimed that "continuous publication" allows for retroactive application of the cyber libel law.
Media observers noted that the case has the potential to set a dangerous precedent in the Philippines, dubbed the world’s social media capital.
"The clearly manipulated charge of cyber libel is a shameless act of persecution by a bully government," read a statement by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
The presidential palace washed its hands over allegations that the Duterte administration was behind Ressa’s arrest because of her critical stories against the government.
"This has nothing to do with freedom of expression or freedom of the press," said Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo. "Regardless of who commits any irregularity or crime, he or she will be charged in accordance with the law."
Human Rights Watch said the cases against Ressa and Rappler "appear designed not only to intimidate the website but to eventually shut it down."
"The Duterte administration’s attacks on such a globally prominent news outlet demand a global response," it said.
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines condemned the arrest of Ressa, saying it "threatens the freedom of the press all of us have fought for and will always defend."
"We will continue to hold those in power led by [Duterte] or any other leader and their administrations accountable every time we need to," read a statement from the organization.
Ressa was named Time Magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2018. She also received the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Center for Journalists’ CFJ Knight International Journalism Award.
Ressa also faces five tax cases and posted bail twice in December 2018 when arrest orders were issued based on alleged violations.