U.N. special rapporteur condemns detention of Maria Ressa

MANILA, Philippines – An official of the United Nations Human Rights Commission joined voices worldwide condemning the arrest of Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa.

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, expressed his indignation in a pair of tweets Wednesday night, February 13.

Kaye described the arrest of Ressa as a "very serious escalation" of media harassment.

He said, "Let’s be clear: this very serious escalation is harassment of media inconsistent with Philippine obligations to promote and protect freedom of expression."

let’s be clear: this very serious escalation is harassment of media inconsistent w #Philippines obligations to promote & protect freedom of expression—>Rappler CEO @mariaressa arrested for cyber libel https://t.co/TnzPeGcFzo via @rapplerdotcom — David Kaye (@davidakaye) February 13, 2019  

Ressa was arrested Wednesday in the Rappler office by agents from the National Bureau of Investigation in connection with a cyber libel case filed by the justice department.

NBI officers in civilian clothes entered the Rappler headquarters without identifying themselves to serve the warrant of arrest. They came close to 5 pm, when courts were about to close. (READ: Rappler statement on Maria Ressa’s arrest: ‘We will continue to tell the truth’

The arrest warrant was issued Tuesday, February 12, by Presiding Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46.

Kaye said it was "intolerable" that Ressa spent the night in detention after a night court judge refused to process her bail.

Ressa went through medical and booking procedures at the NBI headquarters in Manila, a process which began past 8 pm Wednesday night and lasted until almost 12 am of Thursday, February 14. She spent the night at the conference room of the NBI Cybercrime Division, where she was allowed to have companions and lawyers.

Kaye said in his tweet that Ressa "is one of the great global journalists/entrepreneurs and an advocate for and friend to free press everywhere. The fact that she is spending the night in jail is simply intolerable."

@mariaressa is one of the great global journalists/entrepreneurs & an advocate for & friend to free press everywhere. the fact that she is spending the night in jail is simply intolerable. — David Kaye (@davidakaye) February 13, 2019 

Kaye is also a clinical professor of law at the University of Califorina Irvine School of Law. He is also director of UCI's International Justice Clinic which "works with international activists, NGOs and scholars to develop and implement strategies for the protection of human rights."

He was appointed by Human Rights Council as UN Special Rapporteur in August 2014.

Earlier, Amnesty International also swiftly condemned the arrest as "brazenly politically motivated".

"In a country where justice takes years to obtain, we see the charges against her being railroaded," the group said in a statement.

A UN spokesman told reporters in New York they were trying to get "a bit more detail," but that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres "has always stood strong for freedom of the press and for governments to allow journalists to do their work in a way that is unharassed."

The Philippines tumbled 6 places in 2018 in Reporters Without Borders rankings of press freedom to 133rd out of 180, with the body noting the government has pressured and silenced critics.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) also condemned Ressa's arrest. “A free press is an essential ingredient in any democracy, and journalists are often the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when authoritarians seek to consolidate power against the will of the people,” said NDI president Derek Mitchell. “The Duterte government’s latest move to silence the Philippine media should be seen by the international community for what it is: a warning sign that should not go ignored.”

The cyber crime law that forms the foundation of the case against takes aim at various online offenses, including computer fraud and hacking.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the cases against Ressa had nothing to do with her work as a journalist.

"This has nothing to do with freedom of expression or the press," he told broadcaster ABS-CBN. "Regardless of who commits any crime, he or she will be charged in accordance with the law." – with a report by Agence France Presse/ Rappler.com