Lawyer: Stopping Nobel-Winning Editor from Traveling to Collect Prize Would Harm Philippines

Camille Elemia
Manila
2021-11-29
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Lawyer: Stopping Nobel-Winning Editor from Traveling to Collect Prize Would Harm Philippines Philippine journalist Maria Ressa leaves the Court of Tax Appeals building after attending a hearing in a case against her on charges of tax evasion, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Sept. 21, 2020.
(Basilio Sepe/BenarNews)

The Philippine government would damage the country’s international standing and infringe on journalist Maria Ressa’s constitutional rights if it bars her from traveling to Norway next month to collect the Nobel Peace Prize, her lawyer warned in a court filing.

Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida has indicated he is seeking to block Ressa from physically attending the award ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10, saying that her “recurring criticisms of the Philippine legal system” allegedly makes her “a flight risk.”

“Were Ms. Ressa to be refused permission to travel, it is plain that this decision would attract international opprobrium and would severely damage the Philippines’ interests internationally,” Theodore Te, an attorney representing Ressa, said in a motion filed on Nov. 23 in response to a petition by Calida before the Court of Appeals.

In the motion seen by BenarNews on Monday, Te also argued that Ressa was exercising the right to free speech protected by the constitution.

“The OSG’s abhorrence of legitimate criticism of the government, made in pursuit of Ressa’s freedom of expression should not be made the basis to deny the right to travel,” Te said, referring to the Office of the Solicitor General.

On Monday, the United Nations also commented on the issue.

“We urge the Government of Philippines to allow Maria Ressa to travel to Oslo receive her Nobel Prize in person,” the Office of the Spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General said in a tweet.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee last month named Ressa, chief executive of the digital news website Rappler, a co-winner of its prestigious peace prize along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

Seven cases in the Philippines, meanwhile, are pending against Ressa and Rappler.

In the past five years, Philippine courts have issued 10 arrest warrants against Ressa. In June 2020, she and a former colleague were convicted of cyber libel, and face up to six years in prison. They are currently free on bail pending an appeal. Ressa has seen two other libel charges dismissed by the court.

President Rodrigo Duterte has attacked Ressa’s news agency as a source of “fake news.” Her conviction was part of Duterte’s attempt to muzzle journalists reporting on his administration’s controversial drug war, human rights and press freedom advocates said. 

Not a flight risk

Ressa, 58, has consistently returned to the country, complied with her bail conditions, and participated in legal proceedings following every trip abroad, Te emphasized. 

“Ms. Ressa must reiterate and respectfully submits that she has sufficiently demonstrated the necessity and urgency of the travel sought, that she is not a flight risk … Ms. Ressa respectfully seeks the Court’s expeditious approval of her travel request,” according to Te’s nine-page motion.

Ressa has asked the Court of Appeals to allow her to travel to Oslo from Dec. 8 to Dec. 13 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in person.

Government lawyers are opposed to this, arguing “there is no showing that” her in-person attendance is necessary, or her non-attendance in person would cause irreparable damage or prejudice to her.”

Calida, the solicitor general, also argues that there are “alternative means” for Ressa to attend the event, such as “videoconferencing and other technological applications.”

Ressa’s counsel, citing the Nobel invitation letter, mentioned two past instances when laureates were not able to attend the awarding ceremony – in 1936 when Adolf Hitler prohibited jailed German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from joining the event; and in 2010 when Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was represented at the ceremony by an empty chair.

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Maria Ressa speaks with a colleague before giving a lecture at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nov. 16, 2021. (AP)

An honor for the Philippines

A group of Filipinos fighting disinformation are also expressing their support for Ressa, whose news website has closely followed and reported on Duterte’s war on drugs in which thousands of people have died in extrajudicial killings since 2016.

“This historic occasion, whereby a Filipino will be honored to receive the most prestigious international award, cannot be understated,” the Movement Against Disinformation (MAD) said in a statement on Monday, highlighting the fact that only 109 people have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize since 1901.

“This brings great honor and recognition not only to Ms. Ressa but to the Philippines, Filipinos both present and unborn, and all journalists whom she represents through this award. Her presence in the ceremony is symbolic, urgent, and necessary,” MAD said.

Ressa, a dual citizen of the Philippines and the United States, is set to return to Manila from the United States on Dec. 2, after a court had allowed her to travel to Massachusetts to conduct a series of lectures at Harvard University and to join her family for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Her previous travel requests to join documentary screenings, attend journalism awards ceremonies and visit her ailing mother were all denied.

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