Maria Ressa, CEO of the independent newspaper Rappler, has been arrested on charges of “cyber libel” for an article that seems to have violated a law that was not even in place when it was published.

Charges were pressed against Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr over a story that was published in May 2012 alleging that businessman Wilfredo Keng was involved with illegal drugs and human trafficking. The charges claim that the article violated cyber laws, which only came into effect in 2014, two years after the article was published.

Last week, Rappler received a lawsuit against the article but things escalated quickly yesterday afternoon [13 February 2019] when National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) officers arrested Ressa at the newspaper’s offices in Manila.

The Department of Justice said they are also investigating threats made by an NBI agent during the arrest towards a Rappler reporter. The reporter was asked to stop recording or, the agent said,  “we’ll go after you.”

These latest developments follow a series of attacks faced by Rappler and independent journalists across the country at the hands of the current government. Ressa and Rappler have experienced particular attention for shining a spotlight on President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration’s controversial policies since his election in 2016. This includes the so-called War on Drugs.  Ressa was also charged in November 2018 for alleged tax evasion, but released on bail.

Ressa was detained overnight at the NBI headquarters and released on Thursday 14 February, after paying a bail fee of 100,000 Philippine pesos (US$ 1,915).

“My stay last night at the NBI really made me think what this is all about, and for me, it’s about two things: It’s abuse of power, and weaponization of the law,” Ressa said after her release.

“Someone told our reporter last night, be silent or you’re next. I am appealing to you not to be silent, even if, and especially if, you’re next. You have to express outrage like I’m doing now,” Ressa said.

Decline in media freedom

Her arrest comes during a prolonged period of decline in media freedom, which is mirrored in the most recent report from Freedom House where the Philippines is defined as “partly free”, with a low aggregate score of 61/100.  Moreover, at the end of 2018, Philippine’s media watchdogs confirmed that journalists in the region still operate in a highly hostile environment and are often subject to violence, threats and widespread harassment.

Both Rappler and Ressa showed resilience and willingness to continue with their work, without letting pressure from the government put a halt to their operations.

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

The PMA is deeply troubled by Maria Ressa’s arrest and by the deterioration of media freedom in the Philippines and, more broadly, across South East Asia. Even though the Philippines does not currently have a strong public media system, Rappler’s coverage is very much invested in providing public interest and public value content to its audiences.

It is essential that Rappler, together with many other independent news organisations and professionals around the world, continue to operate freely to strengthen and inform democratic societies.

Header image: Sheila Coronel (L) and Maria Ressa onstage at the Committee To Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Awards at the Grand Hyatt on November 20, 2018 in New York City. Credits: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for CPJ