Duterte Spokesman Congratulates, Warns Nobel Winning Philippine Journalist

BenarNews staff
Duterte Spokesman Congratulates, Warns Nobel Winning Philippine Journalist Rappler CEO Maria Ressa waves to supporters as she leaves the Manila Regional Trial Court after being found guilty of cyber libel, June 15, 2020.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

A spokesman for the Philippine president congratulated journalist Maria Ressa on Monday for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but warned she has been convicted of cyber libel and faces additional criminal prosecution over her reporting on the government’s war on drugs.

Announcing the award last week, the Nobel committee lauded Ressa for her efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, calling it a precondition of democracy and lasting peace. She shares the award with Russian journalist Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov.

“Well, it’s a victory for a Filipina and we’re very happy,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in response to a reporter’s question during a virtual news briefing.

“Maria Ressa still has to clear her name before our courts as in fact she’s a convicted felon for libel, cyber libel in the Philippines and she faces other cases in the Philippines,” Roque said, adding “That’s for the courts to decide.”

Ressa, 58, is CEO of Rappler, a digital media news agency noted for its dogged coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Duterte has attacked Rappler as a source of “fake news.”

In a span of five years, Philippine courts have issued 10 arrest warrants against Ressa.

Roque’s statement was the first from Duterte’s administration since Ressa received a call on Friday from a Nobel committee member. She is the Philippines’ first Nobel winner in any category.

US congratulations

While her own government was slow to react, global response poured in following the announcement.

U.S. President Joe Biden issued a statement on Friday congratulating Ressa and Muratov.

“Like so many journalists around the world, Ressa and Muratov have pursued the facts – tirelessly and fearlessly. They have worked to check the abuse of power, expose corruption and demand transparency,” Biden said.

“Ressa, Muratov and journalists like them all around the world are on the front lines of a global battle for the very idea of the truth, and I, along with people everywhere, am grateful for their groundbreaking work to ‘hold the line,’ as Ressa so often says,” he said.

U.S.-based independent watchdog Freedom House offered similar praise.

“Independent, fact-based journalism that holds the powerful to account is one of the great bulwarks of democracy. Maria and her colleagues at Rappler have courageously stood up to the Duterte regime’s efforts to undermine the Philippines’ long tradition of press freedom,” it said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Roque said the peace prize, which is to be awarded on Dec. 10, was not “a slap” against the government.

“It was made by private individuals in Norway. We respect their decision but as I said, criminal liability of Maria Ressa remains pending in our courts and we leave it to our courts on that fate,” he told reporters.

In June 2020, Ressa and a former colleague were convicted of cyber libel and could face up to six years in prison. They are free on bail pending appeal and she has seen two other cyber libel cases against her dismissed.

Ressa’s conviction was part of Duterte’s effort to muzzle journalists reporting on the drug war, human rights and press freedom advocates have said. The International Criminal Court in The Hague is investigating his administration’s crackdown on narcotics that it said left as many as 30,000 dead while the administration listed the toll at around 8,000.

Press freedom

Roque also quoted National Artist F. Sionil José on press freedom.

“So this comes from a national artist: ‘I have criticized Duterte but not on press freedom. The Philippine press is alive and well not because of Maria Ressa. No writer is in jail. There is no censorship. Duterte hasn’t closed a single newspaper or radio station,’” Roque said.

“Sure, journalists have been killed in the Duterte regime but just as it were in the past administrations; but those killings cannot be laid at Duterte’s door. Usually, they are made by minor politicians or officials attacked by journalists,” Roque said quoting José.

Meanwhile, the board of directors of Philippine PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists) issued a statement on Facebook declaring that José, the organization’s founder, is entitled to his own opinion.

“Whether one agrees or not with the decision of the Nobel to award its peace prize to certain personalities, one cannot deny that press freedom and human rights have been under attack in the Philippines under the government of Rodrigo Duterte,” the statement said.

“All of this constitutes a threat to freedom of expression that is anathema to the Charter of the International PEN: ‘PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible.’”


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