Philippines: White House Pressures Duterte on Time ‘Person of the Year’ Journalist Arrest

Philippines arrests Duterte critic journalist Maria Ressa
AFP TED ALJIBE

America’s embassy in the Philippines issued a statement Thursday demanding “due process” for Maria Ressa, the CEO of the news site Rappler, who was arrested Wednesday on “cyber libel” charges for publishing a government intelligence report.

Ressa was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, along with several other prominent international journalists as well as murdered Islamist commentator Jamal Khashoggi, for Rappler’s coverage of the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Rappler has published pieces critical of Duterte’s encouraging of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects, a key pillar of his campaign against drug crime.

Her arrest was unrelated to coverage of Duterte, however, but the result of a businessman named Wilfredo Keng pressing charges against Rappler for a 2012 story linking him to drug trafficking. Rappler published the story prior to the passage of the late 2012 “cyber libel” law that the charges against Ressa are based on.

Ressa was released on bail Thursday after a judge initially denied her bail on Wednesday. She vowed to continue publishing news and encouraged journalists not to back down.

Through its social media accounts, the U.S. embassy on Thursday urged the Philippines to resolve Ressa’s situation “quickly” and afford her the basic right of due process:

Rappler described the remarks as a “rare statement” as “foreign embassies, after all, avoid commenting on domestic controversies involving the sovereignty of another country.”

The relationship between the United States and the Philippines has become somewhat tense under Duterte, who said shortly after taking office that he hoped to leave the alliance with America and join a “new world order” with China and Russia. He has nonetheless been friendlier to President Donald Trump than his predecessor Barack Obama, who he repeatedly referred to as a “son of a whore.”

“President Trump and I are okay. I am okay with President Trump and I can assure him also of our friendship and cooperation,” Duterte said in 2017. “We have no problem there… But for the previous president, I was an evil man.”

The U.S. State Department has not commented on the post on a federal level, leaving the local American presence in Manila to speak on the Ressa case.

Ressa appeared before reporters in Manila on Thursday after posting bailing, urging journalists not to be intimidated by her arrest.

“This is not just about me, and it is not just about Rappler. The message the government is sending is very clear and someone actually told our reporter this: be silent,” she said. “What we’re seeing is death by a thousand cuts of our democracy.”

“Press freedom is not just about journalists. Press freedom is the foundation of every single right of every Filipino to the truth so that we can hold power to account,” she added. “We will not duck, we will not hide, we will hold the line.”

“I’m saying and appealing to you not to be silent, even if and especially if you’re next,” she urged.

Rappler is facing several other legal actions against it, most of them tax cases. Ressa has posted bail six times in the last two months. None of the cases against her directly relate to Rappler’s coverage of Duterte.

Rappler also had its media license revoked last year and its journalists banned from Malacanang, the Philippine presidential palace. Duterte has accused the outlet of being secretly owned by Americans in the past; Philippine law prohibits media operating in the country from being owned by foreign citizens.

The typically outspoken Duterte has offered few comments on Ressa.

“I do not know him, Keng. Frankly, I do not know him, what prompted him to file a case,” Duterte told reporters on Thursday, stating he did not have enough information on the case to comment sufficiently in either Ressa’s or Keng’s defense. Asked if he was intentionally suppressing the media, Duterte adamantly denied it.

“Susmaryosep [Jesus, Mary, and Joseph],” he exclaimed, “Far from it actually.”

Duterte made a public appearance Thursday and delivered one of his typically rambling speeches – sharing an anecdote of a time he allegedly threw a chair at a professor while in college – but did not elaborate on Rappler or Ressa’s arrest. His spokesman Salvador Panelo did offer comments to the Philippine outlet ABS-CBN also denying any deliberate attempts to silence reporters.

“This has nothing to do with freedom of expression or the press. Regardless of who commits any crime he or she will be charged in accordance with the law,” Panelo insisted.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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