Head of Philippines news site Rappler arrested

Head of Philippines news site Rappler arrested

The award-winning head of a Philippine news website known for its tough scrutiny of President Rodrigo Duterte has been arrested on libel charges, the latest in a series of legal cases against perceived adversaries of the Government.

Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa is accused of cyber libel over a 2012 article, updated in 2014, that linked a businessman to murder and trafficking of humans and drugs, citing information contained in an intelligence report from an unspecified agency.

National Bureau of Investigation officers escorted Ressa through a phalanx of media that poured into the Manila office of Rappler on Wednesday when news of the agents’ arrival went viral on social media.

“People should know that the line has been crossed,” Ressa told reporters, adding she would seek bail.

The justice ministry filed the case on behalf of the businessman, who denies any wrongdoing.

Ressa was among several people named Person of the Year by Time Magazine in 2018 for leading what it said was Rappler’s “fearless reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s propaganda machine and extrajudicial killings”, referring to his bloody war on drugs.

Rappler has borne the brunt of what activists say is a state-sponsored campaign to intimidate Mr Duterte’s opponents by hitting them with legal measures, or subjecting them to a torrent of online hate whipped up by social media “influencers”, some of whom held government posts.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said a crime had been committed, a court had found probable cause, and Rappler was not being penalised for its reporting.

“This is nothing to do with freedom of expression or freedom of the press,” he told news channel ANC.

London-based rights group Amnesty International said the charges were trumped up and “brazenly politically motivated”.

Ressa’s arrest is the latest problem Rappler has faced.

Its operating licence was rescinded in 2018 over alleged ownership violations, and it is also dealing with a case involving alleged tax evasion. Both cases are ongoing.

“These cases are intended to intimidate us,” Rappler’s investigative editor Chay Hofilena told media.

“We know that’s the intent, we are not buckling,” he said.

Rappler’s reporters are regularly threatened by elements of Mr Duterte’s online support base, part of what Rappler’s investigations say is an organised “weaponising” of the internet by the Government. The Government denies that. Mr Duterte has said he does not need help from online trolls and insists he has never punished anyone for criticising him.

He has called Rappler a “fake news outlet” and even suggested it might be linked to the US Central Intelligence Agency.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines called Ressa’s arrest “a shameless act of persecution by a bully government”.

The Government said the arrest was a normal step in response to the complaint.

Rappler said National Bureau of Investigation agents served the warrant and she was escorted from the Rappler office to NBI headquarters.

“We are not intimidated. No amount of legal cases, black propaganda and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line,” Ressa said in a statement.

“These legal acrobatics show how far the government will go to silence journalists, including the pettiness of forcing me to spend the night in jail.”

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Ressa was indicted more than a week ago.

Rappler is one of several news agencies deemed critical of Mr Duterte’s policies, including his anti-drug campaign that has left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead.

Time cited Ressa and several other journalists as “guardians,” in what it said was an effort to emphasise the importance of reporters’ work in an increasingly hostile world.

Ressa, who has worked with CNN, also was the winner of two prestigious journalism awards last year, a Press Freedom award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Center for Journalists’ Knight International Journalism Award.

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