Philippines accused of crushing free speech

The head of Philippine news website Rappler, which has criticised President Rodrigo Duterte, has been freed on bail a day after her controversial arrest on libel charges sparked international anger.

Maria Ressa was arrested live on television at her office on what were dismissed as politicised charges aimed at intimidating those who challenge the populist president.
“For me, it’s about two things: abuse of power and weaponisation of the law,” Ressa told reporters.

“You have to express outrage and do it now. Press freedom is not just about journalists. … Press freedom is the foundation of every single right of every Filipino to the truth.”
Rappler and Ressa have also been charged with tax fraud and, if convicted, she could be jailed for 10 years and Rappler could be closed.

This week Ressa was accused of libel over a 2012 Rappler article, posted months before the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 was enacted, linking a Filipino tycoon, Wilfredo Keng, to murder and drug and human trafficking. The piece was based on a 2002 intelligence report.
The story also said Keng had loaned a vehicle to the then chief justice, Renato Corona, during an impeachment trial.

Keng denied the claims but waited until 2018 to file a complaint.

The National Bureau of Investigation dismissed the claims as the story was uploaded before the cybercrime law’s enactment.

But in January the Department of Justice inexplicably revived the case, saying the piece was updated in 2014.

The businessman’s lawyer alleges the report was incorrect, the article was defamatory and Keng wants to clear his name.

Duterte said he was unaware of Ressa’s arrest.

“I really don’t know that. I was out the whole day. I cannot say anything. I have yet to read, I cannot give you an opinion,” the strongman president added. Duterte also denied knowing Keng.

The outspoken president has declared that reporters are “spies” and “sons of bitches” and previously suggested most of the 185 journalists killed in the Philippines over the past three decades deserved to die. “You won’t be killed if you don’t do anything wrong,” Duterte said.

The 73-year-old former lawyer has condemned Rappler’s coverage of his drugs murders, in which more than 20,000 people have been killed in extra-judicial murders, according to opposition parties. He says Rappler posts “fake news” and he bans its staff from his presidential events.

The National Union of Journalists said this week’s arrest was based on a “shamelessly manipulated charge” and was an “act of persecution by a bully government”.

The Philippines used to pride itself on its press freedom. Picture credit: Wikimedia