Ressa 'making mountain out of molehill,' enjoying libel charge – Panelo

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 14) — The President's spokesman believes Rappler CEO Maria Ressa is overreacting to her arrest and is in fact enjoying facing a libel case.

"I think Maria, who happens to be a good friend also--in a way, she's making a mountain out of a molehill," Presidential Spokesperson Sal Panelo said in a phone interview on CNN Philippines' On The Record Tuesday.

"I'm also a mass media man, and sa atin it's a badge of honor when you are sued with libel. Why? Kasi lumalabas magaling ka.. Eh dapat nga natutuwa sya, in fact sa tingin ko nga natutuwa sya, she's in fact enjoying it," he added.

Ressa is currently out on bail after her arrest Wednesday afternoon for a cyber libel case involving a story published on Rappler in May 2012, months before the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 was enacted. It stemmed from a complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng in October 2017 over an allegedly libelous article that said then chief justice Renato Corona used a vehicle registered under Keng's name

The arrest of the veteran journalist -- who was selected by Time magazine as one of its Persons of the Year last year -- sparked outrage among press freedom advocates and journalists at home and abroad who call it an attack against press freedom.

Rappler has been known to be critical of the administration, with President Rodrigo Duterte lashing out at the news website and Ressa in his public speeches.

Panelo, however, reiterated that the administration has no hand in Ressa's arrest. He also maintained that there was no abuse of power and legal process was followed in the journalist's case.

READ: Gov't: Rule of law observed in Rappler CEO's arrest

"There is no connection between her being charge and the freedom of expression," the spokesperson said.

"The President has been the subject of many libelous articles coming form editors, congressmen, and other individuals, including commentator, but he has never filed a libel a case against them. He has nothing to do with it, the government has nothing to do with it," he added.

READ: Rappler CEO calls arrest 'abuse of power'

Duterte had also washed his hands of the case, saying he was not even aware about Ressa's arrest.

Ressa, for her part, said that there were "irregularities" in her arrest and the "actual serving of the arrest warrant shows an intent of malice."

The Rappler executive earlier said that the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents who served the arrest warrant "neglected" to inform her that they lacked "complete documentation."

"They had the arrest warrant, but they didn't have the information sheet which actually [tells] you how much bail could be set," she said in a separate interview on CNN Philippines News Night.

"Look again at the circumstance of this case, they came in after 5 pm knowing that the regular courts are out," she said. "If there was no malicious intent to keep me in detention last night, I have the right to bail on this charge--that is a right," she added. The NBI has denied Ressa's claims.

Desperate move?

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility Chairperson Vergel Santos said the arrest was ordered out of "desperation."

"This should be taken in the context that the President expressed aim to put the whole nation under an authoritarian regime, he says it all the time," Santos said.

"Naturally, when you start doing that, the first target is the press and Rappler happens to be one of the media organizations that have been critical of this government, so that is quite clear," he added.

Santos said the way Ressa was arrested is "very much in keeping with the character of this high-handed regime."

"By being served the warrant late in the day past court business hours, she was denied a basic right, the right to bail," he said.

Santos lamented that powerful and influential people use libel to undermine the press freedom.

"Libel has always been the favorite weapon of people in power, people of wealth and influence who like to perpetuate their pretensions to vulnerable reputations, so in other words the law benefits only the wealthy, influential, and powerful," he said.