The latest attack on Maria Ressa and her digital news site, Rappler, is a clear attack on press freedom.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, insists the early evening arrest of Ressa on February 13 “has nothing to do with freedom of expression or freedom of the press,” and that state prosecutors gave the journalist all the opportunity to defend herself.
But the arrest is a cog in a machine that has relentlessly tried to disrupt operations of a news outfit deemed an enemy of the government. The attacks are led by Duterte, who regularly unleashes vicious bombs against Rappler and other perceived critics.
It is the President who first hurls charges. Government agencies are expected to catch the ball and run with it. It is, as the rights group Karaptan points out, a strategy not limited to Rappler. It has been used on Senators Leila de Lima and Antonio Trillanes, former Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, and dozens of activists.
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) already dismissed last year the complaint against Rappler by businessman Wilfredo Keng. The case was filed beyond the one-year statutory limit, several years after the offending act. RA No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act, was passed months after Rappler published the subject of the cyberlibel complaint.
A few months after, following noise from Malacañang, the bureau caved in. The case now employs a creative legal twist: Because the article remains on cyber space, Rappler can be charged for a “continuing crime."
Ressa also faces five tax cases and posted bail twice in December 2018 when arrests orders were issued on these alleged tax violations.
All these legal charges were ushered into the public consciousness by verbal abuse. Duterte, who plays fast and loose with facts, accused the United States Central Intelligence Agency of funding Rappler.
The Security and Exchange Commission has since cancelled Rappler’s corporate registration, for violating the law that mandates full Filipino ownership of media companies. Duterte ordered Rappler banned from his public engagements.
Nobody believes the fiction about this government respects press freedom and freedom of expression. Not with the regular bombs from Duterte.
The attacks on Rappler, just like the persistent distributed denial of service (DdoS) assaults on the websites of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and the alternative news sites Bulatlat, Kodao and Altermidya, are deliberate and orchestrated.
But many vociferous critics of the Duterte regime are strangely quiet on a key fact: Ressa is being persecuted using a law that the government of former President Benigno Aquino III rammed down the heart of the world’s social media capital in the face of public outrage.
Aquino signed the law on September 12, 2012, fueling protests and and 15 legal challenges in the Supreme Court.
There were a million good reasons to fight the Aquino law. It was an overreach that contained great potential for abuse. The rage spilled from online to the gates of the Supreme Court. The protests included hackers breaking into some government websites.
RA 10175 increased penalties for cybercrime versions of offenses already in the penal code, including libel.
It also gave the Department of Justice unilateral powers to shut down websites, without informing owners or giving them a chance to challenge findings. The Supreme Court struck down the take- down powers, calling it unconstitutional.
Philippine media organizations have long called for the decriminalization of libel. The law is seen as unjust because journalists shoulder the burden of proof, both on truthfulness and the absence of malice.
Then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said her department had opposed the provision on online libel and had recommended its deletion.
But Aquino, who had a fractious relationship with the Philippine press, defended online libel. “Whatever the format, if what you said was wrong, I believe that the victim should have the right for redress,” Aquino said.
Critics warned the law he signed opened up millions of excitable social media users to harassment. I was then head of Bayan Mo iPatrol Mo, ABS-CBN’s citizen journalism unit. Bayan Patrollers rushed to comment on the new law, piling up 500 comments every hour for every shoutout. The ratio of pro to con was around 1 aye to a hundred nays.
The Supreme Court ruled that netizens passing on libelous stories should not be penalized, but it upheld the constitutionality of the anti-cyberlibel provision.
The High Court voted down three provisions as unconstitutional: one penalizing unsolicited commercial communications; another, granting the state powers for real-time collection of traffic data, and third, powers to restrict or block access to computer data.
Aquino’s aides dismissed concerns of press and freedom of expression watchdogs. Only the abusive, they added, should fear the anti-cybercrime law.
They shrugged off empirical evidence that the burden of criminal libel affects the shady and award-winning alike. The Aquino government, they insisted, had the best interests of citizens at heart.
The Duterte regime is the one persecuting journalists today. But let us not forget the roots of today’s outrage.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.