Duterte on Maria Ressa arrest: 'I do not relish picking on her. I’m out of it.'
Ressa was selected by Time magazine as one of its “Persons of the Year” in 2018, amid moves by the government against Rappler that she lambasted as harassment and infringement on press freedom.
Duterte on Maria Ressa arrest: 'I do not relish picking on her. I’m out of it.'
Christina Mendez (The Philippine Star) - February 16, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte stressed he had nothing to do with the arrest for cyber libel of Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa.

Ressa was selected by Time magazine as one of its “Persons of the Year” in 2018, amid moves by the government against Rappler that she lambasted as harassment and infringement on press freedom.

She was arrested Wednesday over a cyber libel complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng.

On the sidelines of the proclamation rally of the PDP-Laban in Bulacan on Thursday, Duterte was asked to comment on accusations that he had a hand in Ressa’s arrest.

He replied: “Oh my… far from it actually. I do not relish picking on her. I’m out of it.”

“I don’t know Keng, frankly. I do not know him and what prompted him to file a case,” Duterte said.

He said he has also been subject of legal attacks in the past since he was mayor of Davao City.

He said those charged in court should face the issues head-on rather than blame him.

Ressa said the complaint had previously been dismissed by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and then “magically reappeared” through the Department of Justice.

She said the case was emblematic of the government’s mobilization of the legal system against its critics.

Malacañang chided Ressa for claiming there was “abuse of power” in her arrest.

“Now you say ‘there is an abuse of power.’ Excuse me, Maria, abuse of power? You are the one abusing your power as a journalist,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said yesterday.

“She complains that there (was) abuse of power. It is she who is abusing her power as a journalist, marshaling her colleagues to support her in a misplaced and baseless cause,” he added.

Panelo said the case against Ressa had nothing to do with any supposed government policy in dealing with journalists.

“You’re saying that the government is instilling fear because of the case filed against you. There is no connection whatsoever, so you are the one using your power as a journalist… We all know media is the fourth estate in attacking the government as well as this administration,” Panelo said.

Panelo issued another statement lashing out at Ressa for saying the government is weaponizing the law against her.

“You are the one using or weaponizing the law. What is the law? The constitutional right to freedom of expression – you are using that now against the government. But the Constitution says, libel is not protected by the freedom of expression – that is precisely why you are charged, because as far as this complainant is concerned, his rights have been violated by you,” Panelo said.

Panelo went as far as saying that Ressa has misled certain personalities abroad into believing that she was being harassed by the government. 

Face trial

NBI agents served the warrant against Ressa late Wednesday and escorted her from the Rappler office to NBI headquarters, where she stayed overnight.

Ressa called the timing of her arrest “malicious,” since she was unable to seek bail on the same day.

She was able to post bail only the following day in Manila after the Pasay City court denied her bail.

“The case (was) filed in Manila, so she should post bail in Manila,” a Pasay City court staff explained.

The government said Ressa’s arrest was a normal step in response to the complaint and had nothing to do with press freedom.

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar yesterday said Ressa should simply face trial.

Like any other individual charged with libel, Andanar said the Rappler executive should submit herself to the judicial process.

“It is just one of the many cases of libel… which has to go through the judicial process. The aggrieved person also has the right to the same,” he said.

Andanar said the case against Ressa and Rappler is not uncommon.

“The impulsive conclusion that their non-exemption from the judicial process constitutes a blanket attack on press freedom in the Philippines is a blatant disregard for the earnest efforts of the very stakeholders to come up with programs aimed at safeguarding it,” he said.

Andanar said some journalists do not get the opportunity to avail themselves of due process but end up physically assaulted or murdered for their hard-hitting news.

The National Press Club (NPC) issued a statement expressing dismay over the manner Ressa was arrested.

The NPC however said Ressa’s arrest is not part of the administration’s harassment of its critics.

“While the NPC recognized that the NBI served the warrant as part of our judicial process, the manner by which it was done smacks of bad taste – at the close of office hour. The NBI could have served the warrant much earlier, if it wanted to,” the NPC said.

The NPC agreed with the observations that Ressa’s case is not uncommon.

“Ms. Ressa’s experience has been the experience of many in the media profession. It can be a great ‘inconvenience’ but, not something that should relegate someone to the altar of press freedom for ‘martyrdom,’” the NPC said.

The NPC also warned the “politicization” of libel charges might trigger more violent attacks against the media.

“(It) can only increase when would-be complainants begin to entertain the thought that the filing of libel case has become an exercise in futility because its result can be swayed by the noise of mob rule,” the group said.

Keng, for his part, denied the government was using him to go after Ressa.

He maintained the case against Ressa was personal.

Keng added the filing of the case against Ressa does not impinge on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which he said are “freedoms which I fully believe in and support.”

“I maintain: this is a private criminal action against Rappler, Ressa and other named individuals concerning their untrue, unfair and malicious imputation of grave crimes against me. It is my personal fight to vindicate my name against the acts of an unethical and irresponsible few,” Keng said.

“I have nothing to do with and am in no way being used by the Philippine government. I am an ordinary, private citizen and this is a personal, private suit. It is a basic remedy filed against defamatory words. My case does not tackle state suppression of policy criticism or of free expression of sentiment,” he said.

Rappler said the businessman filed the complaint five years after the article appeared in 2012, and the law under which Ressa was charged by the government, the Cybercrime Prevention Act, did not go into effect until months after the article’s publication.

Rappler published a story on the late former chief justice Renato Corona using a vehicle registered under Keng, whom the online news site allegedly claimed to have been involved in illegal drugs and human trafficking.

Keng has denied those allegations and said he welcomed the indictments and was determined to see the legal battle through. – With Evelyn Macairan, Ghio Ong, Edith Regalado

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