President Rodrigo Duterte this week called Philippine journalist Maria Ressa a “fraud” while hinting that his government was preparing a legal case against the editor and chief executive of the Rappler news website, who was convicted in June of cyber-libel.
Details of what the new case may be all about remained unclear as of Thursday, and Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said he did not want to second guess the president. However, he confirmed that the Philippine leader was “preparing something and we just have to wait.”
During a cabinet meeting from the southern city of Davao late Tuesday, the president directed his ire against Ressa, whose news organization has been unrelenting in pursuing critical coverage of the Duterte administration.
“Ressa is a fraud, believe me,” Duterte said, according to transcripts of the meeting, which was also broadcast by state television. “Give us time. Too early for you to enjoy your awards. You are a fraud, actually.”
Duterte said “we are just compiling” details of the new case against Ressa and that his government would eventually “show your incongruity.”
Last month, a regional trial court in Manila convicted Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr., a former staff writer at Rappler, of cyber-libel over a complaint filed by a businessman Wilfredo Keng for a 2012 story published by Rappler. The report had said Keng owned a vehicle seen being used at the time by the then chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court. The article had also described Keng of being linked to the criminal underworld.
Ressa and Santos were each sentenced to serve six months to six years in prison. Ressa remains free on bail, but is also facing a new libel case filed by Keng just days after she was convicted on June 15.
Western governments and press groups worldwide have condemned the conviction of Ressa, a multi-awarded journalist and dual Philippine-American citizen who once worked for CNN and has covered the Philippines extensively.
Reacting to Duterte’s tirade, Ressa on Wednesday accused the president of “weaponizing the law.”
“We call a spade a spade. Was he referring to me?” Ressa said in a post on Twitter. “Maybe the president is just seeing too much fraud from where he sits.”
Duterte has never hidden his distaste for several members of the Philippines press, especially those who have challenged his government’s war on illegal drugs that has left thousands dead.
Ressa has been one of the leading critics of his administration along with ABS-CBN Corp., a Philippine television and radio broadcasting giant. The network’s 25-year franchise has expired, and the government has ordered it to cease from broadcasting while a Congress controlled by Duterte allies is deliberating on whether to grant it an extension of its license.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives ended marathon hearings on the issue of ABS-CBN’s new franchise. The House had convened 12 hearings in all, during which lawmakers allied with Duterte raised various issues against ABS-CBN, ranging from alleged labor and tax violations to the network’s alleged political bias.
“Nothing was proven that ABS-CBN committed mistakes,” said Rep. Carlos Zarate, a legislator who filed a bill calling for a renewal of the network’s license. “Instead, we learned how millions of Filipinos depend on ABS-CBN not only for news and entertainment, but also for education.”
The House may vote on ABS-CBN’s fate on Friday. The firm’s free-to-air public TV and radio programs have been yanked off the air since its license expired in May, depriving millions of access to its popular primetime news casts and entertainment shows.
Nonoy Espina contributed to this report from Bacolod City, Philippines.