Rappler CEO Maria Ressa arrested for alleged 'cyber libel'; bail rejected

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 13) — Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa was arrested over a cyber libel case Wednesday afternoon. The case involved a story published in May 2012, months before the Anti-Cybercrime Law was passed.

National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents arrived at the Rappler's office in Pasig City at around 5:30 p.m. and served the arrest warrant issued by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Regional Trial Court Branch 46 in Manila.

Ressa arrived at the NBI Cybercrime Division office in Pasay City past 7 p.m., but the Pasay City court did not allow her to post bail. She remains in custody of the NBI through the night.

Black propaganda?

Ressa said the issuance of an arrest warrant against her is "interesting."

"I'm just shocked that the rule of law has been broken to a point that I can't see it," she said in an interview, as she was escorted out of Rappler's office.

The Rappler CEO said no legal case or "black propaganda" can silence journalists in the country.

"These legal acrobatics show how far the government will go to silence journalists, including the pettiness of forcing me to spend the night in jail," she added.

Rappler investigative Desk Head Chay Hofileña told CNN Philippines they were "very, very surprised" that NBI agents served an arrest warrant on Ressa that day.

Her lawyer said they will cooperate with the NBI.

"We'll just make sure Maria's rights are protected, and that's it," Darwin Angeles said.

In tweets, Rappler staff said they were prohibited from taking videos of the service of the arrest warrant in their office. They were reportedly told that they will "go after you too."

Ressa was scheduled to appear at the University of the Philippines (UP) annual campus fair as a speaker tonight. The UP Diliman University Student Council announced it will hold a "silent protest" for Ressa during the event proper.

The Department of Justice said that the original publication of the article involved in the case in 2012 is not covered by the law. However, it cannot say the same of its February 2014 update.

In the article, businessman Wilfredo Keng was said to have lent a vehicle to former Chief Justice Renato Corona. Keng denied this in the same story.

In a statement by Rappler later that night, it said that the case could set a dangerous precedent when it comes to online published material.

"This is a dangerous precedent that puts anyone - not just the media - who publishes anything online perennially in danger of being charged with libel. It can be an effective tool of harassment and intimidation to silence critical reporting on the part of the media. No one is safe," Rappler said.

Critics slam arrest, Palace says 'rule of law' prevailed

Several critics and human rights advocates, meanwhile, slammed Ressa's arrest.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said Ressa's arrest is a 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," NUJP said in a statement.

"It is clear this is part of the administration's obsession to shut Rappler down and intimidate the rest of the independent Philippine media into toeing the lines."

Human rights group Amnesty International said the incident is "brazenly politically motivated."

"In a country where justice takes years to obtain, we see the charges against Maria Ressa railroaded, and the law being used to relentlessly intimidate and harass journalists for doing their jobs as truth-tellers," it said in a statement.

On the other hand, 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.

READ: PH dips in 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranking

Reporters Without Borders, which conducted the study, flagged the cases filed against Rappler as among the reasons for the Philippines' low rankings.