[OPINION | NEWSPOINT] The ambush of Maria Ressa

 

The arrest of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa was very much in keeping with the high-handed ways of the Duterte presidency: it looked more like an ambush. By being served the warrant past court-business hours, she was denied her prompt right to bail and made to spend the night in detention. She went free on bail the next day.

It’s an old trick that appears to have become a reflex show of police power, a sort of institutional habit, as such free of malice and viciousness, relatively. It is certainly not the case with Ressa, however. She has been picked on and cast in a larger and darker scheme. 

As she herself warned at the very moment of her arrest, “We are going to new lows...we should be worried.”

Doubtless she intended her warning to carry beyond the news profession. She knows the price of her own stature, and she also knows Duterte. Being a press-freedom champion of world renown – she was among the journalists honored in Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” for 2018 – has made her a prime target for him: show her up to be vulnerable, subdue her, and a chill probably goes around enough to help ease the way for the authoritarian rule he has been itching to impose. Well, knowing Maria Ressa, she’s not one easily subdued

But neither is Duterte one easily dissuaded, not by reason, not by conscience, not by the polls. Authoritarianism is for him a narcissistic fixation.

In fact, he began dragging the nation down that road upon taking power and has succeeded completely with Mindanao, his own home island, the largest of the archipelago’s 3 main ones. Mindanao came under martial rule when a war broke out in Marawi City nearly two years ago between government forces and a band of outlaws, separatists, and terrorists; it has remained so to this day, amid the ever-so-slow cleanup and rehabilitation of that bombed-out city.  

The flimsy circumstances surrounding Ressa’s arrest have raised speculations that Duterte is desperate to accelerate his drive toward despotism. Indeed, libel – or some pretext of it – does seem a device too well-worn to use for the purpose. 

But, having proved effective for them, not to mention being handy, libel has been long favored by people in power, people of wealth and influence, and people who like to keep up pretensions to a ruinable reputation. If it works for the lesser of them how could it not work for Duterte? Not only is he, after all, Chief Executive and Commander in Chief; judging by the vote he gets from Congress and the Supreme Court for his espousals, he has them co-opted.Anyway, I’m not sure about him being desperate. Impatient? Vicious? Mad even? Absolutely, but that’s all in the nature of his pathology. 

Unable to accommodate a free and adversarial press in his autocratic mindset, he has held Rappler in particular contempt, in fact voicing his sentiment publicly and all too often, lest his enforcers fall out of alignment to his wishes. Sure enough, even before they were slapped with libel, Rappler and Ressa had already been taken to court – Rappler for a Securities offense, Ressa for tax evasion, both cases concocted, too, she says. 

Those earlier suits having been brought by state agencies directly, Duterte’s apologists are able to do little to dispel suspicions of harassment and intimidation.

Carefully choosing what battles to fight, as does anyone else who knows rudimentary lawyering, Duterte’s main spokesman, Sal Panelo, now makes a big thing of the absence, although only on the face of it, of any such ties as may suggest collusion between his boss and the libel accuser, "a private citizen," he makes sure to point out, conveniently leaving out one compelling element – common cause: both President Duterte and this private citizen are not fond of Rappler or Ressa.

Panelo also discourses minutely on judicial procedures and, in particular, on how supposedly these were observed faithfully and painstakingly in Rappler’s and Ressa’s cases. And, again, he skips an all-important point – the all-important point: quality of judicial decision-making; in other words, fairness.

That should rank, I must say, among the most serviceable side-stepping tricks Panelo has performed for Duterte and his courts and their beneficiaries – the Marcoses, the Arroyos, the Enriles, the Estradas, and the Revillas, to name only the most deserving. – Rappler.com