The Philippines on Tuesday said international rights lawyer Amal Clooney was not licensed to practice law in the country after she announced she would represent embattled online news publisher Maria Ressa, who faces several cases tied to her firm’s critical reporting of President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly drugs war.
Ressa, CEO of Rappler, was arrested for the second time in March for allegedly violating the country’s laws on foreign ownership of local media. Last year, Ressa was also briefly detained for allegedly misrepresenting her tax returns. She had been free on bail.
Duterte’s spokesman and lawyer, Salvador Panelo, said Clooney could coordinate with Filipino lawyers, but could not practice law in the Philippines because she was not registered with the local bar.
“In other words, it’s like she would be Ressa’s consultant or spokesperson,” Panelo told reporters.
Panelo expressed his excitement to engage Clooney in a debate and said the British-Lebanese lawyer needed to be educated on Ressa’s cases.
“It appears she has misinformed Attorney Amal,” Panelo said of Ressa. “Maybe when we I see [Clooney], I can – to use the word of the president – educate her.”
Ressa, a former journalist with American television giant CNN who was named a Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018, faces at least nine court cases.
In a statement issued Monday, Clooney and her London-based firm Doughty Street Chambers, said she would lead as co-counsel for the team of international lawyers who will be coordinating with Ressa’s attorneys in Manila. Amal Clooney is the wife of U.S. actor George Clooney.
“Maria Ressa is a courageous journalist who is being persecuted for reporting the news and standing up to human rights abuses. We will pursue all available legal remedies to vindicate her rights and defend press freedom and the rule of law in the Philippines,” Clooney said.
She said Ressa and Rappler have been “targeted by the Filipino authorities following their reporting of public interest stories about human rights abuses” and the so-called weaponization of social media in the Philippines, where those reporting against the drug war are routinely shamed or threatened online.
Ressa has repeatedly said in the past that the charges were clearly forms of harassment to force journalists to go easy on Duterte, who took the presidency by a landslide three years ago on a promise to eradicate crime by murdering drug addicts and dealers.
Police under Duterte’s command has appeared to have followed through: Since he became the country’s leader, at least 6,600 drug dealers and addicts have been killed in alleged gunfights with law-enforcement officers.
Clooney will lead the team with Caoilfhionn Gallagher, and would work with lawyers in the United States and in Manila.
Targeted and attacked
Ressa said she was “delighted” that Clooney and her team would represent her on the international level “to challenge the violations” of her rights.
“I have been targeted and attacked simply for being an independent journalist,” Ressa said.
Carlos Conde, researcher of Human Rights Watch Asia Division, welcomed Clooney’s participation, saying the participation of high-profile lawyers would help draw attention to Ressa’s case.
“This raises the issue that her case represents to an even higher level, the better to make the public aware not just about what's happening to her and Rappler but about the erosion of press freedom and the constriction of democratic space in the Philippines,” Conde said.
In 2015, Clooney, 41, who specializes in international law, criminal law and human rights, also filed a case against the Philippine government before the United Nations over the extended detention of former President Gloria Arroyo, who was later acquitted of graft charges by the Philippine Supreme Court.
Clooney has represented several prominent clients, including freed Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.