The internationally acclaimed Washington Post called on the US government to show “much greater resistance” against the guilty verdict on Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, as the Philippines “slides toward autocracy” under President Rodrigo Duterte.
In a stinging editorial on Tuesday, June 16, the Washington Post said it was 15 months ago when the US State Department “issued one statement saying it was ‘concerned’ about the prosecution of Ms Ressa, who holds US citizenship.” (Ressa, as a dual citizen, also holds Filipino citizenship.)
“The Philippines’ slide toward dictatorship deserves much greater resistance from Washington – if not from the White House, then from Congress,” wrote the Washington Post Editorial Board.
A Manila court on Monday, June 15, sentenced Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr for cyber libel. This is the most high-profile case filed by the Duterte government against individual journalists, in what critics view as part of Duterte’s de facto dictatorship.
The Washington Post said Ressa’s conviction “ought to be shocking to democratic nations.” This echoed the view of international journalists who said, in a forum on Monday, that democracies should push back against Ressa’s verdict.
“A court verdict that could lead to a prison sentence of up to 7 years for her and a colleague showed that Mr Duterte is succeeding in compromising the Philippines’ justice system, even as he personally flouts the rule of law,” said the leading American news outlet.
The Washington Post viewed Ressa’s case in the context of Duterte’s recent steps “toward dismantling the Philippines’ 3-decade-old democracy.” The news outlet cited the shutdown of the Philippines’ biggest TV network, ABS-CBN, which according to Human Rights Watch “reeks of political vendetta.” It also mentioned the anti-terror bill, seen as a tool to curtail dissent, that is now awaiting Duterte’s signature.
“Acting under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Duterte is seeking to obliterate checks on his power, whether from the media, Congress, or courts,” said the Washington Post.
News analyses from other parts of the globe show that this is consistent with trends in other countries. A recent Foreign Affairs article said the coronavirus “is emboldening autocrats the world over,” as they use the pandemic to justify censorship, surveillance, and other iron-fisted policies. The Foreign Affairs piece by Larry Diamond even used Duterte as a prime example.
Unfortunately, said the Washington Post, the Trump administration “has largely been silent” about Duterte’s abuses, as the US leader “evidently admires Mr Duterte’s strongman instincts.”
High-profile US personalities such as Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton – two of three female secretaries of state – have spoken out, however, against Ressa’s verdict. US Senators Edward Markey, Patrick Leahy, and Dick Durbin have also issued a joint statement saying that “this verdict is a travesty of justice.”
Other journalists, such as Peter Greste, have made similar appeals to the world’s democracies. Greste is a former Al-Jazeera correspondent who was imprisoned for more than a year in Egypt for his work as a journalist.
Referring to Ressa's trial, Greste warned: "If we see a conviction in this case without a serious pushback from the White House, from Canberra, from London, from other democracies around the world, it will be a very clear signal not just to the Philippines but to other states that are limiting press freedom across the region, that they can get away with it, that they can crack down on journalists with relative impunity, that there is no big price to pay."
Greste then urged non-Filipinos to urge their governments to condemn the verdict on Ressa and Santos.
"This really is a time for everybody, particularly those of us who are not in the Philippines, to speak to our politicians and diplomats, to write to our members of Parliament and our governments and foreign ministries, to make it abundantly clear that this is simply unacceptable, that this is a stain on press freedom, it's a violation of democratic principles, it's a rollback of democracy in the Philippines," he said. – Rappler.com