Manila, Feb 14 (IANS) Maria Ressa, a high-profile Philippines journalist and Time magazine Person of the Year, was freed on bail on Thursday after her arrest overnight on charges of “cyber-libel” drew international condemnation.
Ressa is the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Editor of news website Rappler which is critical of the government of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The journalist posted bail of 100,000 pesos ($1,900) after she was accused of libel for an article published in 2012 – four months before the law under which she is accused was enacted.
Ressa has been accused of “cyber-libel” over a seven-year-old report on businessman Wilfredo Keng’s links to illegal drugs and human trafficking. The charges against her carry a potential 12 years in prison, the BBC reported.
“The message is clear. It’s an abuse of power, it’s a weaponisation of the law. Another line was crossed but if they wanted to scare me, this isn’t the way to scare me,” Ressa said.
Activists and press freedom groups around the world criticised the Rappler CEO’s detention. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called it an “outrageous” arrest that “must be condemned by all democratic nations”.
Human rights group Amnesty International said the Duterte government was using legal threats to “relentlessly intimidate and harass” journalists.
On Wednesday evening, Ressa was in the Rappler newsroom when plain-clothed officers from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) entered to hand-deliver her arrest warrant.
Although the order was signed by a judge on Tuesday, the authorities handed the document to her in the evening when most of the courts were about to close, therefore reducing the likelihood of posting bail.
A judge then refused the posting of bail, forcing her to spend the night in custody.
The Department of Justice presented cyber libel charges against Rappler, Ressa as its CEO and journalist Reynaldo Santos for the story on businessman Keng.
Three prosecutors from the Justice Department ruled last month in favour of Keng, who in October 2017 filed a complaint against Rappler’s story.
Keng filed his complaint five years after the story’s publication to the Office of Cybercrime at the NBI, which dismissed the case in February 2018 over lack of grounds and because the one-year deadline to file a libel complaint had expired.
However, the Justice Department reopened the case the following month based on a “continuous publication” argument as the report was still available online.
The cyber libel law under which Ressa was charged came into force four months after the publication of the story and was not retroactive, according to her lawyer J.J. Risini.
Last November, another arrest warrant was issued against Ressa for five offences of tax evasion, both against Rappler as a company and against her personally.
Duterte has been vocal about his animosity towards Rappler, which he has accused of being financed by the US’ Central Intelligence Agency, and in February 2018 banned Rappler reporters from the Presidential Palace.