Updated at 4:43 p.m. ET on 2019-03-29
The founder and chief executive of an online news portal that has criticized President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war was arrested Friday for a second time, in what press and rights advocates labeled as a clear case of clamping down on media freedom.
Officers took Maria Ressa into custody in Manila after she disembarked off a flight from San Francisco. She was arrested on charges of breaking the country’s laws on foreign ownership of local media, but freed hours later after posting bail of 90,000 pesos (U.S. $1,666).
“Coming home to confront yet another ridiculous criminal case. I didn’t expect the Philippine government to make my joke about collecting arrest warrants a reality,” Ressa said in a Tweet before landing in Manila.
In other media-related news on Friday, social media giant Facebook announced it had removed some 200 pages from its network that it said engaged “in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram in the Philippines, misleading others about who they were and what they were doing.”
Ressa, a former CNN journalist who was honored among Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year in 2018, maintained her innocence, saying the arrest was likely part of Duterte’s war against the independent press.
“It’s kind of interesting, I have nine policemen escorting me along with my trusty lawyer. This is a travesty of justice. I have done nothing wrong. I am not a criminal. I am treated like a criminal,” Ressa said while being arrested upon arrival at Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Including her latest arrest, Ressa now faces at least nine cases against her. These include charges of libel, cyber libel and multiple counts of tax evasion.
“I will not run away from any of these charges because I want to mark every single action the Philippine government takes. It shows you how intolerant of journalists this government is. This is another press freedom issue. We draw the line. If that line is crossed, we are no longer a democracy,” she said.
Ressa’s lawyer, Francis Lim, said her client’s arrest was not a surprise to them.
“[L]et it be crystal clear that these acts of harassment will not deter our clients from doing their duty as journalists. We believe in the rule of law and it is our fervent hope that we will prevail in the end,” Lim said.
Duterte's office told Reuters it had no grudge against Rappler and the government was not behind any of the cases against the news site and its staff.
The news agency said it found no evidence that Duterte was directly involved. Instead, its interviews with Philippine officials and journalists showed that close allies of Duterte coordinated the investigations against Rappler. A spokesman for Duterte's office said accusations his government was abusing or harassing Rappler were "unreasonable."
Last month, Ressa was arrested but posted bail after spending a night in detention, for the alleged crime of cyber libel, which became an offense under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.
That case was brought by businessman Wilfredo Keng in late 2017 over a Rappler story published five years earlier. The article identified Keng as the owner of a sports utility vehicle that then-Supreme Court chief judge had used during his impeachment trial for corruption in 2012.
The latest arrest is connected to a National Bureau of Investigation complaint that Rappler had allowed a U.S.-based investor to inject funds into the Philippine media company, according to the Associated Press. Foreign ownership of Philippine media is outlawed in the country.
‘Egregious harassment must stop’
Rights and press groups on Friday decried Ressa’s second arrest as Duterte’s latest move to silence journalists and critics who have been closely reporting his war on drugs. He has accused these reporters of being spies for western governments, and has openly cursed them.
“It is clear that the government is manipulating the law to muzzle and intimidate one of its most credible media critics,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “This egregious harassment must stop.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said Rappler had clearly become “the whipping boy of the Duterte administration.”
“[I]t is hard to shake the suspicion that the filing of this latest case was timed to make sure Maria would be welcomed home by an arresting team as soon as she stepped off her flight from abroad,” the union said.
The NUJP called on the Philippine press to close ranks and stand behind Rappler. It urged the press to resist the government’s “attempts to muzzle us and, in doing so, silence our people’s voices and deprive them of the information they need to decide on their personal and collective futures.”
Carlos Conde, a Philippine researcher for Human Rights Watch, said it was apparent that the government wanted to shut down Rappler and stop its critical reporting of the drug war, which has left more than 5,000 dead since 2016, by official police counts.
“The administration has shown a relentlessness in its persecution of government critics unseen since the time of the Marcos dictatorship. The charges against Rappler and its people should be dropped,” Conde said.
He argued that the case against Ressa and Rappler was unprecedented “and speaks volumes of the Duterte administration’s determination to shut the website down for its credible and consistent reporting on the government, particularly the 'drug war' and the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects and civilians.”
Anti-troll action by Facebook
Critics, meanwhile, have accused Duterte of hiring “trolls” on the Internet to attack opponents on Facebook, a social media site popular among Filipinos. He had once hired an exotic dancer to spread divisive propaganda on the social media site, but she has since resigned to avoid being grilled by the Senate, which wanted to investigate her office’s function.
“We are constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said in a statement announcing the move to take down 200 pages from its network in the Philippines.
“We’re taking down here pages and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted,” he said, emphasizing that the people behind the activity were found to have coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves.
Individuals behind the activity had used a combination of authentic and fake accounts to spread disinformation, he said. They often frequently posted about local and political news, including unfounded allegations against political opponents.
While the people behind the activity tried to hide their real identities, Facebook said its investigation found that it was likely coordinated by a network, which could be traced to a certain Nic Gabunada. He had once admitted to running the social media campaign of Duterte when he was running for president in 2016.
Gabunada said the Facebook move was “unfortunate” but denied being behind the many accounts that were shut down.
“If they will have to take down my account it’s their prerogative, on the other hand they have to consider I’m not doing it for the sake of whatever it is that they’re accusing me of," ABS-CBN television quoted Gabunada as saying.
Updated to add a comment from President Rodrigo Duterte's office.