'Big blow to press freedom:' VP Robredo, lawmakers, journalists denounce Rappler CEO's arrest

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 14) — Vice President Leni Robredo slammed the outrageous efforts to silence the critics of the administration after the arrest of journalist and CEO of news site Rappler, Maria Ressa.

"Isa na namang yugto na nagpapakita sa atin kung gaano iniipit ang mga naglalakas-loob na makapagsalita laban sa mga polisiya ng administrasyon," she said in a chance interview in Naga City on Wednesday.

Robredo, a key member of the opposition, said the arrest and detention of Ressa will have a chilling effect on the journalism in the country.

"Napakalaking dagok sa press freedom. Napakalaking warning na anyone na magkakaroon ng lakas ng loob na magpahayag ng kanilang saloobin ay napaparusahan," she said.

Ressa was arrested on Wednesday after a Manila court issued a warrant of arrest against her for a cyber libel case involving a story published on their online news platform May 2012, months before the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 was passed.

She remains detained at the conference room of the National Bureau of Investigation's Anti-Cybercrime Division on Thursday morning after failed attempts to file bail. She was nabbed by authorities past 5 p.m. Wednesday, and courts have closed at that time. The Pasay City court did not allow her to post bail, citing jurisdictional reasons.

Magdalo Rep. and senatorial candidate Gary Alejano said this is another move of the government to silence its critics and jail its citizens who have been critical of its illegal or immoral actions. He said this is proof of a weakening democracy. The solon urged journalists to stand firm in their right to press freedom.

"Ang pag-atake sa mga mamamahayag ay isang senyales ng panghihina ng demokrasya sa bansa. Ito ay isang matinding hamon para sa nagtataguyod at nagtatanggol ng katotohanan at katarungan sa ating bayan. Huwag tayong matakot magpahayag ng katotohanan para sa ating malayang kinabukasan," he said in a statment.

Senator Kiko Pangilinan expressed support for the embattled journalist.

"Kailangan nating gumuhit at sabihing nasa panig tayo ng katotohanan at katarungan. Nasa panig tayo ng malayang pamamahayag. Nasa panig tayo ni Maria Ressa," he tweeted on Wednesday.

 

CNN Chief International anchor Christiane Amanpour said the Philippine government's action against Ressa reeks of desperation. She even called out President Rodrigo Duterte to release the Rappler executive editor from detention.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) condemned Ressa's arrest and said that it is a "shameless act of persecution by a bully government."

"This government led by a man who has proven averse to criticism and dissent, now proves it will go to ridiculous lengths to forcibly silence a critical media and stifle free expression and thought," the NUJP added.

Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said that the case does not impinge on the exercise of press freedom.

"(The case has) no connection whatsoever with the exercise of press freedom," Panelo said in an interview with CNN Philippines. "The rule of law has been served in this particular case."

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that this could have been avoided if Ressa had posted bail earlier.

"Ms. Ressa's arrest is something that she and her counsel should have anticipated and preempted with the simple posting of a bail bond. The information for cyber libel was filed in court nearly two weeks ago," Guevarra said in a message to CNN Philippines.

Like Panelo, he said that the cases against Rappler "have nothing to do with press freedom."

In 2018, the Philippines ranked 133rd among 180 nations in the World Press Freedom Index.

Ressa, a journalist critical of President Duterte and his administration, was among the group of journalists hailed as Person of the Year by Time Magazine in 2018. She was also, for many years, a reporter and bureau chief of CNN based in Manila and Jakarta.