MANILA - Rappler chief Maria Ressa is a "walking testament" that press freedom remains vibrant in the country, Malacañang said Monday following criticism that her arrest is meant to stifle opposition.
Ressa, whose news site has repeatedly clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte, was detained overnight last Wednesday for libel due to an allegedly defamatory Rappler report in 2012. The veteran journalist said her legal plight shows "how far the government will go to try to silence a voice."
Duterte's spokesperson Salvador Panelo however said Ressa is "the walking testament that freedom of the press, as well as of expression, are very alive in this country."
"Until now, she's still using that freedom to assault the government and this administration," he told ANC.
The Philippines, he added, is "the freest country with respect to expression of oneself and publication of newspapers," considering that the administration itself has not filed a complaint against any journalist.
"Ang galing-galing nga na ang daming banat, kaliwa't kanan, wala naman, hindi pinapansin," he said.
(It's excellent that there have been many tirades left and right, but nothing, these were not given attention.)
The libel case against Ressa was lodged by businessman Wildredo Keng, whom Rappler's 7-year-old story named as the owner of a luxury vehicle used for former Chief Justice Renato Corona.
President Rodrigo Duterte already denied any involvement in the cyber libel case filed against Ressa, who believes otherwise.
Speaking to reporters, Duterte said he does not even know who is Wilfredo Keng, the one who filed the cyber libel complaint against Ressa.
Ressa's arrest came after Duterte lashed out at other critical media outfits, including newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer and broadcaster ABS-CBN. He had threatened to go after their owners over alleged unpaid taxes or block the network's franchise renewal application.
The Philippines tumbled 6 places last year in Reporters Without Borders' press freedom index to 133rd out of 180, with the body noting that government has pressured and silenced critics.
Some of the drug crackdown's highest-profile detractors meanwhile have wound up behind bars, including Senator Leila de Lima, who was jailed on drug charges she insists were fabricated to silence her.
Another critic of Duterte, Former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, was booted out of the high court for failing to declare her wealth in full.
"Even if those persons were not subject of criticism of the President, if evidence shows that they committed a crime, they will be facing charges in court," Panelo said of Ressa, De Lima, and Sereno.
"There are so many people critical of the President, hindi naman sila idinidemanda (they have not been tagged in any complaint)," he added.
Panelo also called on Ressa's camp to "focus on your defense" instead of arguing that the 1-year prescription had already lapsed when Keng filed the case in 2017.
"That is a legal issue, let the court decide... Stop dragging the government or this administration or the President relative to your case. Walang kinalaman ang Presidente d'yan (The President has nothing to do with it)," he said.