National Press Club: Ressa's arrest done in bad taste, but libel case not harassment

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'Ms. Ressa's experience has been the experience of many in the media profession. It can be a great 'inconvenience' but, not something that should relegate someone to the altar of press freedom for 'martyrdom,'' the National Press Club said.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 15) — The National Press Club (NPC) is dismayed at the National Bureau of Investigation's (NBI) arrest of Rappler chief executive officer and executive editor Maria Ressa, but sided with the government in saying that the cyber libel charge she is facing is not part of the administration's harassment of its critics.

"While the NPC recognized that the NBI served the warrant as part of our judicial process, the manner by which it was done smacks of bad taste—at the close of office hour (sic). The NBI could have served the warrant much earlier, if it wanted to," the journalists' group said Friday in a statement.

READ: Panelo, Ressa disagree on 'irregularities' in her arrest

NBI agents served an arrest warrant on Ressa at Rappler's Pasig City office as courts were closing on Wednesday. The warrant did not have an information sheet, which indicates the bail bond Ressa would have to post for her temporary freedom.

With a Pasay City night court refusing to grant her motion for bail, Ressa was forced to spend a night in NBI detention before she was able to post a ₱100,000 bail the following morning.

The NPC said it will call on the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and other government agencies for a review of the agreement between the journalists' group and the DILG on the arrest of journalists for libel.

However, the NPC said it "takes exemption (sic)" to the view that the cyber libel charge against Ressa is an act of political harassment by the government against its critics.

"Ms. Ressa's experience has been the experience of many in the media profession. It can be a great 'inconvenience' but, not something that should relegate someone to the altar of press freedom for 'martyrdom,'" the NPC said.

The NPC also warned that this "politicization" of libel charges may prompt more violent attacks against the media.

"This risk of violent attacks against the media can only increase when would-be complainants begin to entertain the thought that the filing of a libel case has become an exercise in futility because its result can be swayed by the noise of mob rule," it said.

The NPC's position differs from other media groups, like the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, which called the cyber libel charge against Ressa and her subsequent arrest as an attack on the press by the Duterte administration.

When the Securities and Exchange Commission cancelled Rappler's license to do business in 2018, the NPC also differed from other media groups' reactions, backing the government's decision to shut down the news website.

President Rodrigo Duterte has denied that he had anything to do with Ressa's arrest, even saying that he was unaware of it.

Businessman Wilfredo Keng sued Ressa and former Rappler staff Reynaldo Santos Jr. for cyber libel over an article which claimed that he lent a vehicle to former Chief Justice Renato Corona and that he was linked to drug smuggling, human trafficking and other illegal activities. In the same story, Keng denied that his vehicle was used by Corona.

In a statement on Friday, Keng said he is not connected to or is being used by the government.

"I am an ordinary, private citizen and this is a personal, private suit. It is a basic remedy filed against defamatory words. My case does not tackle state suppression of policy criticism or of free expression of sentiment," Keng said.

He said Rappler and Ressa has "repackaged" his suit into an attack by the government and as a violation of the freedom of speech and of the press.

He added that he is also exploring other cases that he can file against the news website and Ressa.

Ressa has repeatedly said that the cases she and Rappler are facing are exhibits of the present government's "abuse of power" and the "weaponization of the law" against its perceived enemies.

She said this is the sixth time she has posted bail in two months.

Rappler has earned the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte following its publication of reports critical of his administration. He and other government officials have accused it of publishing fake news and of being owned by foreigners.

CNN Philippines Correspondent Gerg Cahiles contributed to this report.