'Not martyrdom': NPC says Ressa arrest 'done in bad taste' but not harassment

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 16 2019 11:35 AM

MANILA - News website Rappler chief Maria Ressa's arrest over cyber liber charges was "done in bad taste" but was not an act of political harassment, the National Press Club (NPC) said Friday.

Ressa was arrested in her office in Pasig City Wednesday evening, when courts that could process bail had closed, over an alleged defamatory article about a businessman Rappler published in 2012.

She spent overnight at the National Bureau of Investigation's (NBI) headquarters in Manila and made bail around noon Thursday. Upon her release, she slammed her arrest as a move to violate her rights and an attempt to curtail press freedom then urged journalists to not be silent. 

"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 journalists' organization said in a statement. 

In the same breath, the NPC said filing a libel case was "a legal remedy available to everyone and should not be politicized," the NPC said in a statement.

It said it "takes exemption (sic)" to other groups' criticism "that the incident is another act of political harassment by the government against its critics."

"For many in the press, particularly, the members and officers of the NPC, to be sued for libel is among the risks that we daily faced in the performance of our duty," said the NPC, whose former president is currently an environment undersecretary. 

"It can be a great 'inconvenience' but, not something that should relegate someone to the altar of press freedom for 'martyrdom,'" it said. 

The NPC's stance contradicts statements of other media organizations which described Ressa's arrest as an act "meant to harass, intimidate, silence" journalists who are critical of the administration.

"This is chilling, definitely chilling. Whatever bold reporting that is left around is certain to be softened by all this," Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) chairman Vergel Santos earlier said.

"The intention is clear. The idea is to intimidate not only to harass, but to intimidate to repress, and eventually to silence," he said.

The government's "legal harassment of Rappler and Ressa has now reached a critical and alarming juncture," the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said.

Several Communications organizations in the academe also condemned the arrest.

The NPC, however, warned that "politicizing" Ressa's case may "increase the risk of greater violence against the media."

"Transforming this incident into a political circus in pursuit of vested political and ideological interests is to encourage everyone’s disrespect for the law and with it, to increase the risk of greater violence against the media," the NPC said.

"This risk of violent attacks against the media can only increase when would-be complainants begin to entertain the thought that the filing of a libel case has become an exercise in futility because its result can be swayed by the noise of mob rule," it said.

Still, the NPC called on the Department of the Interior and Local Government and other relevant agencies "for a joint review and reiteration" of a memorandum of agreement seeking "close coordination between the police and the NPC in the serving of warrant of arrest against members of the press for libel."

Apart from the cyber libel case, Ressa and Rappler are also facing a tax suit, and the site's incorporation certificate was revoked in 2018 for allegedly violating the constitutional restriction on foreign ownership of mass media.