Philippine prosecutors said Wednesday they will file a libel charge carrying up to 12 years in prison against journalist Maria Ressa, who leads a news website that has clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.
Ressa, who was named a Time Magazine “Person of the Year” in 2018 for her journalistic work, slammed the fresh case as a new front of “harassment” intended to silence her website.
The case – under a controversial cybercrime law penalizing online libel – adds to legal pressure on Ressa and her site Rappler, which has already been hit with tax evasion charges that could shutter the outlet and put her behind bars.
Why This Matters
Rappler has drawn the administration’s ire for publishing reports critical of Duterte’s infamous anti-drug crackdown, which has resulted in the summary execution of thousands of alleged users and pushers since 2016.
Duterte has boasted about his government’s “extrajudicial killings” of suspected drug users and has likened himself to Adolf Hitler.
“Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now there is 3 million, what is it, 3 million drug addicts (in the Philippines), there are,” he said in 2016. “I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
TIME magazine names a group of journalists "who have taken great risks in pursuing the truth" as 2018 Person of the Year. The journalists include Jamal Khashoggi, Maria Ressa and staff of the Capital Gazette. https://t.co/iiGzZKHl0J
— Twitter Moments (@TwitterMoments) December 11, 2018
The new case against Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos, Jr. stems from a 2012 report written about a businessman’s alleged ties to a then-judge on the nation’s top court.
While investigators initially dismissed the businessman’s 2017 complaint about the article, the case was subsequently forwarded to prosecutors for their consideration.
Duterte has lashed out at other critical media outfits, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and broadcaster ABS-CBN.
He had threatened to go after their owners over alleged unpaid taxes or block the network’s franchise renewal application.
Some of the drug crackdown’s highest-profile critics have wound up behind bars, including Senator Leila de Lima, who was jailed on drug charges she insists were fabricated to silence her.
Ressa, already on bail for the tax charges, said the new case lacks a sound legal basis.
“It is ridiculous, of course it is harassment,” she told AFP. “The story was published seven years ago, four months before the (cybercrime) law was enacted.”
The law that forms the foundation of the case takes aim at various online offenses, including computer fraud and hacking.
Nonoy Espina, chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said the case would set an ominous precedent.
“This is an extremely dangerous proposition since it essentially means anyone can be made liable for anything and everything they posted even way before the Cybercrime Law,” he added.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told AFP on Wednesday the case would be filed in court “very soon.”
Under the tax case, the government accuses Rappler Holdings Corp., Ressa and the site’s accountant of failing to pay taxes on 2015 bond sales that it alleges netted gains of 162.5 million pesos ($3 million).
The Philippine justice system is notoriously overburdened and slow, with even minor cases taking years to be judged.
Guevarra denied the government’s decision to pursue the case was an effort to put pressure on the website.
More on the Subject
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in October at his country’s Istanbul consulate, was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” Tuesday, an honor he shared with other targeted journalists recognized as “guardians” of the truth.
Among those named with Khashoggi were Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – currently imprisoned in Myanmar – and the workforce of the Capital Gazette in the U.S. city of Annapolis, including five staff members killed in a June shooting.
“As we looked at the choices it became clear that the manipulation and abuse of truth is really the common thread in so many of this year’s major stories, from Russia to Riyadh to Silicon Valley,” Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal said.