- Her news site, Rappler, has been investigated by police after challenging extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s war on drugs
- The case has become a symbol of the deterioration of democracy under the current administration and a blow for press freedom
Maria Ressa, the editor of Philippine online news site Rappler and one of the most outspoken critics of President Rodrigo Duterte, has refused to back down despite her arrest earlier today on charges of tax fraud.
Ressa turned herself over to the authorities at Pasig city regional trial court in Manila this morning and was released on bail of 60,000 Philippine pesos (US$1,150). She is due to be arraigned on Friday.
“I surrendered to the court, but that doesn’t mean I accept its jurisdiction,” she told the South China Morning Post in a telephone interview.
“Part of the reason the government is attacking us is that we have shown data-based evidence that officials were complicit in the spreading of hate.
“We’ve called a spade a spade. When I ask why are they targeting us, this tells me that we must be doing something right.”
Rappler has been vocal in holding the Duterte administration to account, particularly over the deadly war on drugs which has claimed thousands of lives in the Philippines.
The official number of deaths is 5,000 people, but human rights organisations estimate the true figure could be in the tens of thousands.
Journalists around the world have commended her commitment to defending press freedom. A crowdfunding campaign has raised thousands of dollars for Rappler’s legal fees in a case observers and activists said had become a symbol of the deterioration of democracy under Duterte.
Luis Teodoro, board member at Philippines NGO Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility, said the charges against Rappler and the crackdown on other organisations were an assault on press freedom and part of a “creeping authoritarianism” overtaking the Philippines.
Teodoro said this had created an environment in which all media organisations, not just those critical of the government, were vulnerable: “What it all amounts to is a presidency that is virtually unchallenged.”
There’s nothing to negotiate. We’re not going to stop telling stories Maria Ressa
Ressa returned to the Philippines on Sunday night after travelling abroad to receive the Press Freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists and the 2018 Knight International Journalism award.
“I will do what I need to do to face all of this,” she told reporters at the airport upon her arrival last night.
“I’m going to challenge the process and I’m going to challenge the charges. I am going to hold my government accountable for publicly calling me a criminal.
“We have to continue to do our jobs. We have to tell people – here is the line, and we have to make sure the government doesn’t cross it. Because when it does, we’re no longer a democracy.”
The Philippine Department of Justice last week charged Rappler with three counts of failure to file returns, and one count of tax evasion, with penalties including heavy fines and up to 10 years in prison.
The Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission in January temporarily revoked Rappler’s registration for allegedly violating foreign ownership rules owing to investments in some of its Philippine Depositary Receipts – financial instruments allowing firms in the country to raise capital from foreign funds or other investors. Rappler says these investors do not own any shares of the company.
Officials also claim Rappler failed to disclose US$3 million on 2015 tax returns from investment by the Omidyar Network, an investment fund created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar.
Ressa previously said the government had classified her media organisation as a “dealer in securities”, thus holding her accountable to different tax obligations. She has flatly denied this categorisation.
“We’re obviously not a stock brokerage agency,” she told reporters yesterday. “I’m a journalist. I’ve always been a journalist.”
In a Monday press conference, Philippine presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the charges against Ressa and Rappler were not politically motivated.
Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters without Borders have publicly called for the campaign against Rappler to be dropped.
The Society of Publishers in Asia has condemned the arrest and called on authorities to respect due process.
In a statement released yesterday, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines warned that arresting Ressa sent “a clear signal that the country’s democracy is fast receding under a feckless administration that cannot abide criticism and free expression and will go to ridiculous lengths to muzzle all those it does not agree with”.
“More than his inability to tolerate dissent, Duterte’s relentless persecution of media appears to be part of the increasingly authoritarian direction his presidency has taken,” it said.
Danilo Arana Arao, associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, said Ressa’s arrest and ongoing legal battles against other outspoken outlets would have a chilling effect on journalists’ willingness to report anything controversial and on the public’s ability to rely on the press for accurate information.
“What Mr. Duterte is doing is not constructive criticism – what he is doing is destructive. It seeks to destroy not just the lives and livelihood of Rappler but press freedom in general. We have to expose this circus for what it really is – an attack on the media.”
Teodoro from the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility said the rest of the press must be willing to continue to report on the truth despite the risks.
“Rappler is being persecuted because Rappler has been providing the analysis and interpretation of events that is necessary,” he said.
“The rest of the press must do the same thing, must be more critical, more discerning. It’s the only way people can understand what the hell is going on.”
Ressa plans to fight the charges. “I’ve seen others give in and try to negotiate,” she told the Post. “There’s nothing to negotiate. We’re not going to stop telling stories.”
This story was first published on scmp.com.