Robredo slams Maria Ressa's arrest as 'political harassment'

CAMARINES SUR, Philippines (4th UPDATE) – Vice President Leni Robredo condemned "in the strongest terms" the arrest of Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa over a cyber libel case. 

On Wednesday, February 13, the Vice President said the issuance of the arrest warrant against the veteran journalist is a form of "political harassment." (READ: 'Persecution by a bully government': Journalists, advocacy groups slam arrest of Maria Ressa)

"Iyong sa akin, nakakalungkot. Dine-denounce natin in the strongest terms, na sa panahon ngayon, iyong political harassment – dahil sa pagpapahayag ng saloobin, dahil sa pagpapahayag ng pangongontra sa ibang mga polisiya, nagiging dahilan para supilin iyong freedom, hindi lang ng members ng media, pero ng mga tao na naglalakas ng loob," Robredo told reporters after the opposition senatorial slate's grand rally in Naga City. 

(I am saddened by this. I denounce in the strongest terms this political harassment – that because you express what you think, because you criticize policies, these become reasons to suppress freedom, not just of the media, but all other people who dare to speak up.)

Ressa was arrested early Wednesday evening at Rappler's headquarters in Pasig City by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

She is being detained by the NBI for the night after the Pasay City Regional Trial Court, where there is a designated night court, refused to process her bail. 

Ressa is facing a cyber libel case filed against her by the Department of Justice (DOJ), under which the NBI is an attached agency.

The case stemmed from a complaint by businessman Wilfredo Keng, who was identified in a May 2012 Rappler article as the owner of an SUV that then-chief justice Renato Corona had used during the impeachment trial.

The Cybercrime Prevention Act was enacted only in September 2012. Rappler updated the article in February 2014 to correct a typographical error. But the DOJ claimed this was tantamount to "multiple" publication.

Ressa, the 'brave'

The Vice President said Ressa has shown just how tough she is in the past months. The Rappler CEO is facing 5 other tax cases and an alleged violation of the anti-dummy law. 

"Si Maria Ressa, ipinakita iyong tapang. Noong mga nakaraang taon, mga nakaraang araw, mayroong mga panahon na parang siya na lang iyong boses na naririnig natin dahil lahat natatakot," said Robredo.

(Maria Ressa has shown how brave she is. In the past year, in the past days, there were times when it seemed she was the only voice left that we could hear, because everybody else was scared.) 

"Pero iyong tapang na ipinakita niya, nagbibigay-inspirasyon sa marami pa na worth the fight iyong ginagawa. Kaya sana, sana iyong kaniyang arrest ay hindi magdagdag ng takot sa ibang nais magpahayag ng kanilang saloobin," the Vice President added.

(But this bravery that she has shown gives inspiration to many that what they are doing is worth the fight. I hope her arrest will not make others afraid to speak out.)

Robredo's party mate in the Liberal Party, Senator Francis Pangilinan, also urged everyone to make their voices heard.

"Kailangan nating magsalita, magbuklod, sabihin sa mga nasa poder: Hindi kami papayag, at hindi nag-iisa si Maria. Kailangan nating gumuhit at sabihing nasa panig tayo ng katotohanan at katarungan. Nasa panig tayo ng malayang pamamahayag. Nasa panig tayo ni Maria Ressa," Pangilinan said in a statement.

(We need to speak out, unite, tell those in power: We will not allow this, and Maria is not alone. We need to draw the line and say that we side with truth and justice. We side with freedom of the press. We side with Maria Ressa.)

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, one of President Rodrigo Duterte's fiercest critics, echoed the call to defend press freedom.

"I strongly condemn Duterte's latest effort to persecute independent journalist Maria Ressa. This move unmasks his despotic regime and his fear of accountability. We must unite and stand for press freedom in these trying times, as Duterte systematically destroys our democracy," said Trillanes.

Attack on press freedom 

Candidates who are part of the Otso Diretso senatorial ticket likewise condemned Ressa's arrest.

Reelectionist Senator Bam Aquino said the arrest is a big blow to press freedom.

"Mahalagang haligi ng demokrasya ng ating bansa ang press freedom. Kapag napilay ang demokrasya, mamemeligro ang mga karapatan at kalayaan ng mamamayan," the senator added.

(Press freedom is an important pillar of our country's democracy. If democracy is crippled, the rights and freedoms of citizens would be in peril.)

Both human rights lawyer Chel Diokno and ex-Quezon congressman Erin Tañada, also a lawyer, said the cyber libel case against Ressa does not have legal basis. 

"At the time that the alleged crime took place, there was no law! So when there is no law, there is no crime. So ito ay nagpapakita na talagang hina-harass ang ating mga members ng media na nagsasalita ng katotohanan (So this shows there is really harassment of members of the media who are speaking only the truth)," Tañada told Rappler.

Diokno said it is clear the Duterte administration is out to get Ressa.

"Alam naman natin na galit ang administrasyon sa Rappler. Bakit naman nila tina-target si Maria? 'Di naman tama na gano'n ang gagawin nila sa media natin, lalong-lalo na eh pinoprotektahan ng ating Saligang Batas ang freedom of speech, freedom of the press," said Diokno. 

(We know this administration is angry at Rappler. Why would they target Maria? This is not the right thing to do to our media, especially because our Constitution protects freedom of speech, freedom of the press.) 

Another opposition senatorial candidate, Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano, said Ressa’s arrest is a "clear brazen attack on press freedom."

"Ang pag-atake sa mga mamamahayag ay isang senyales ng panghihina ng demokrasya sa bansa. Ito ay isang matinding hamon para sa nagtataguyod at nagtatanggol ng katotohanan at katarungan sa ating bayan. Huwag tayong matakot magpahayag ng katotohanan para sa ating malayang kinabukasan," said Alejano. 

(Attacking journalists is a sign of the country's weakening democracy. This is a huge challenge for those defending truth and justice in our country. Do not be afraid to proclaim the truth for the sake of our future.)

Opposition senatorial candidate Samira Gutoc urged Duterte "to be fair to Ressa."

"As a former journalist myself, I understand the situation of Maria Ressa. She does not belong in jail just for doing her job and for being an honest professional. She belongs in the press room where she can expose the truth and help those whose cause needs to be brought into the light," Gutoc said.

"It was Rappler who first reported my resignation from the Bangsamoro Transition Council due to the rape joke said at the height of the Marawi siege.... It should not be demonized for undertaking its sworn oath," she added.

Former solicitor general Florin Hilbay, also an opposition senatorial bet, said "'outrageous' is too light a word" to describe Ressa's arrest. It happened, he added, while real criminals go scot-free.

"Iyong mga tunay na nangulimbat sa bayan ay hindi inaaresto dahil matanda na raw. Iyong piyansang siningil ay napakaliit kumpara sa ninakaw nila. May iba ngang pinapayagan pang tumakbo sa eleksyon!" said Hilbay.

(The real ones who stole from the nation's coffers are not being arrested because they're supposedly too old. The bail that was required was too small compared to what they stole. Some are even allowed to run in the elections!)

Romulo Macalintal, who is also part of the Otso Diresto slate, called Ressa's arrest as a "clear violation of the rule of law and her human rights."

"Basic is the law in all civilized nations that no person could be punished for an act where no law prohibits its commission nor the retroactive application of a criminal law for an act committed before its enactment," the lawyer said.

He said it is "as clear as the sunlight" that Ressa cannot be prosecuted for an act allegedly committed in May 2012 under the Cybercrime Law, because said law only went into effect in September 2012.

Silencing the truth

Tindig Pilipinas, a coalition of cause-oriented groups and opposition politicians, said Rappler has clearly angered the Duterte administration by reporting the truth.

"It is time for all Filipinos who value democracy, a free press, and truth to rally behind Rappler. We must boost their readership and encourage advertisers to maintain or increase their partnerships. It is time to show Duterte that those he persecutes, flourish," said Tindig Pilipinas.

Akbayan, meanwhile, warned that Ressa's arrest "sends a chilling signal" not just to journalists but to all Filipinos.

"The arrest of Maria Ressa for fighting disinformation puts a target sign on all those who tell the truth," the party said in a statement. "President Duterte will not stop until he has silenced voices who speak of the truth about his administration – hounded by extrajudicial killings, corruption, nepotism, and misogyny."

Senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares, chairman of Bayan Muna, pointed out: "If Maria Ressa and Rappler were all praises for the government or if she uncritically kowtows to the government line, she would not have been arrested in this manner. In fact, the DOJ might have even dismissed the complaint against her."

For Anakpawis Representative Ariel Casilao, "the arrest is authoritarian, and must be opposed by the freedom-loving and democratic forces in the country."

Gabriela Representative Arlene Brosas also noted that aside from journalists, activists and human rights defenders have been under attack.

"May we find more reasons to rise for democracy and rage against fascism on this bleak day," said Brosas.

The youth, said Kabataan Representative Sarah Elago, should be the "bearers of truth and the defenders of basic human rights."

"There is an ongoing crackdown on media, priests, farmers, the youth – the dissenters and whistleblowers of Duterte's regime, which continues to deprive the people of [their] basic rights," Elago said.

"Media practitioners are under attack in the regime's desperation to keep an illusion of goodness, despite the seeping truth trying hard to be covered by a wall of fake news.... Defend press freedom!"

In a statement on Friday, February 15, Anakpawis Representative Ariel Casilao called on the public to "condemn and resist the political persecution against media practitioners in the country."

He said Ressa's arrest was a clear manifestation of the Duterte government's tyranny, adding that “only a tyrant or a dictator is intolerant of a free press." – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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