MANILA: Philippine journalist Maria Ressa is a veteran of conflict zones who now finds herself at the heart of a fight against government legal attacks she says are intended to silence her.
Ressa’s news site, Rappler, has taken a critical stand on President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly anti-drug crackdown and faces being shuttered by government tax fraud cases.
The veteran reporter was arrested at her Manila office Wednesday (Feb 13) on a “cyber libel” charge that press freedom advocates called a clear effort to intimidate her.
Ressa’s arrest came just over two months after posting bail on tax fraud charges that the 55-year-old insists are “manufactured”.
The running fight with the government has drawn international concern, and Time magazine named her a Person of the Year in 2018 for her work.
The arrest in the libel case, which stems from a 2012 report about a businessman, comes as Ressa and Rappler were already fighting multiple counts of misleading the government on taxes.
If convicted on one count of tax fraud alone she faces up to a decade behind bars. The libel charge carries a maximum penalty of 12 years.
“WE DID NOT HIDE”
Ressa has had a tumultuous past year, beginning with a January 2018 government move to revoke Rappler’s licence.
At the same time she has received a series of global awards from press freedom advocates, including the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Ressa has been battling what she calls disinformation under Duterte, who won elections in mid-2016 on a promise to rid society of drugs, in the process killing thousands of people.
Rappler has been among a small number of Philippine media outfits producing investigative reports on the killings in Duterte’s anti-crime crackdown, and is critical of his leadership.
A journalist for more than 30 years, Ressa is no stranger to threats.
As CNN’s former bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta, Ressa specialised in terrorism where she tracked the links between global networks like Al-Qaeda and militants in Southeast Asia.
“I’ve been shot at. I almost got thrown out of a country. I’ve been imprisoned for a night,” she said in December.
However Ressa, who holds both American and Filipino citizenship, returned to the Philippines as news chief of the largest television network ABS-CBN for six years.
In 2012, she launched her own startup, Rappler, in social media-obsessed Philippines.
However that website is now fighting for survival as Duterte’s government has accused it of violating a constitutional ban on foreign ownership in securing funding, as well as libel and tax evasion.
Reacting to the Time award, Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said that charges against government critics were legitimate, and free expression remained “robust”.
Ressa, who denies all the charges, has vowed to fight back.
“We at Rappler decided that when we look back at this moment a decade from now, we will have done everything we could: we did not duck, we did not hide,” she said while accepting an award in November last year.
“You don’t really know who you are until you’re forced to fight to defend it.”