Maria Ressa, a high-profile Philippine journalist and vocal critic of the country’s president, was arrested Wednesday in connection with “cyber libel” charges against Rappler, the news site she oversees.
Ressa, who is Rappler’s CEO, confirmed that she was served an arrest warrant in a phone call with CNN. She was formally arrested later on Wednesday, according to JJ Disini, one of her lawyers.
The award-winning journalist was served an arrest warrant by Philippines National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) officers.
Ressa told reporters shortly after receiving the warrant that the fact it had been issued was “interesting,” adding that she was “shocked that the rule of law has been broken to the point that I can’t see it.”
Rappler said the charges are over an article it published in 2012. However, the cyber libel law only came into effect in the Philippines in 2014. The NBI ruled in January that because the report preceded the law, Ressa could not be charged. But that judgment was over-turned by the Department of Justice on the grounds that the news article was updated in February 2014.
Ressa will spend the night in NBI custody after running out of time to post bail, Rappler said on Wednesday night as her lawyers were unable to complete bail proceedings before a 9:00pm (8:00am ET) deadline. Ressa was arrested at the online news site’s Manila offices shortly after 5:00pm.
Rappler lawyer Disini characterized the timing of the warrant’s delivery as “unusual” in a phone interview with CNN. He said it caused “complications because the courts are not open all night … therefore it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for her at this point to post bail.”
Disini added that the charges “seem to be politically motivated” and denied any updates were made to the offending article in 2014.
“What happened in 2014 was merely a punctuation change, so there was nothing. If the libel had been committed way back in 2012, a change in punctuation couldn’t have republished that libel.”
The lawyer said the next steps of the fight would take place in court and despite the fact that Rappler has been under such scrutiny by investigators, he was confident the site would ultimately prevail.
Disini said, “I do have faith in our judges and I’d like to think that we would get some even-handed justice when we file our motions in court.”
Francis Lim, another lawyer collaborating on the case, said in a statement to CNN that it was “a sad night for the rule of law and press freedom in the Philippines.”
“It means that the law can be twisted by the powers as a weapon against journalists who expose their wrongdoing to the public,” Lim said. “This case was originally dismissed for lack of merit and resurrected within days and decided against Ressa in an effort to silence the press. We trust that our courts of law will come to the rescue of our ideals that are held sacred by our Constitution.”
Who is Maria Ressa?
Ressa, the chief executive of Rappler and a 2018 Time Person of the Year, has been indicted multiple times on libel and tax evasion charges that critics have described as politically motivated and designed to silence independent media in the southeast Asian country.
She has been a journalist in Asia for over three decades, previously working for CNN before starting Rappler, an online news site that has since become an indispensable source of information for readers in the Philippines and internationally.
Prior to this, she managed ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs, the largest multi-platform news operation in the Philippines, according to her Rappler author profile. Over the years she has been honored multiple times – one of her more recent accolades was the Knight International Journalism Award from the International Committee for Journalists in 2018.
Rappler said authorities attempted to stop some of its journalists from filming the proceedings against Ressa on Wednesday, and that one officer who declined to give his name to reporters threatened to “go after you too.”
CNN attempted to reach the Philippines NBI by phone but the bureau did not pick up.
Rappler’s extensive reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs has earned praise from human rights advocates, but has made the site and its journalists a target by supporters of the Duterte administration.
Time Magazine included her among its selections for the 2018 Person of the Year award, which honored journalists who have been targeted for their work.
Philippine prosecutors filed five cases related to tax evasion against Ressa and Rappler late last year. Some of the charges allege that the company failed to declare about $3 million in 2015 on tax returns from an investment by the Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar.
“I’ve long run out of synonyms for the word ‘ridiculous.’ The basis of this case is that Rappler is classified as a dealer in securities. I am definitely not a stockbroker,” Ressa told CNN after news of those charges broke.
Rights advocates condemn arrest
Duterte’s office has denied he is involved in the prosecutions against Rappler, but the President has previously sparred with the company’s employees, personally barring Ressa and reporter Pia Ranada from Malacanang Palace, his official residence, over their coverage of his administration.
Amnesty International slammed the decision to issue a warrant for Ressa’s arrest.
“This is brazenly politically motivated, and consistent with the authorities’ threats and repeated targeting of Ressa and her team. Authorities should end this harassment, drop the charges and repeal this repressive law,” Amnesty International Philippines section director Butch Olano said in a statement.
“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,” Olano continued.
The Committee to Protect Journalists denounced the Philippines authorities, calling for Ressa’s immediate release.
“The Philippine government’s legal harassment of Rappler and Ressa has now reached a critical and alarming juncture,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We call on Filipino authorities to immediately release Ressa, drop this spurious cyber libel charge, and cease and desist this campaign of intimidation aimed at silencing Rappler.”
CNN’s Karen Smith contributed reporting.