MANILA - The $2.3 trillion pandemic aid and spending law signed last Sunday (Monday in Manila) by U.S. President Donald Trump for his country carries a policy sanctioning foreign government officials who threaten or wrongfully imprison journalists including Maria Ressa of Rappler.
An explanatory statement for the law from the U.S. House of Representatives stated that "The Secretary of State shall apply subsection (c) to foreign government officials involved in threatening, wrongfully imprisoning, or otherwise depriving of liberty independent journalists who speak out or publish about official corruption or other abuses, including Maria Ressa in the Philippines and El Faro in El Salvador."
The explanatory statement, intended for the portion of the law titled, 'Department of State, Foreign Operations, And Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2021', is "approved and indicates congressional intent," it said.
According to the State Department, Section 7031(c), under which the instruction pertaining to journalists under threat was made, "provides that in cases where the Secretary of State has credible information that officials of foreign governments have been involved in a gross violation of human rights or significant corruption, those individuals and their immediate family members are to be designated publicly or privately and are ineligible for entry into the United States."
Ressa was convicted this year of cyberlibel and is facing 8 other criminal cases which she described as pressure from the government against her news organization and an attack on press freedom amid their critical reporting on the administration's deadly war on drugs and other alleged irregularities.
El Salvador's El Faro, on the other hand, is a digital newspaper in Latin America.
The new policy also allows journalists who are being persecuted in their respective countries to "request assistance from United States embassies."
"Not later than 90 days after the enactment of the Act, the Secretary of State shall submit an update of the action plan... [that] shall include details regarding Department of State programs to support the work of civil society activists and journalists and to provide assistance when such individuals are under threat," it read.
The US Secretary of State is also mandated to "include in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices information on the intimidation of, and attacks against, such individuals and the response of the foreign government."
"Hope this gives some relief to journalists under attack globally," Ressa said of the development in a tweet.
"The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, But it Bends Toward Justice," she said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.
Ressa's legal counsel Amal Clooney welcomed the new US policy.
"We deeply appreciate Congress's commitment to holding accountable those in the Government of the Philippines who are persecuting her," Clooney said in a statement.
"Our hope is that those who are abusing the law to extinguish press freedom in the Philippines can be persuaded to drop the unjustified charges they have brought against Ms. Ressa, but if they do not relent, we will work with the United States and other concerned governments to hold the perpetrators accountable," she said.
Ressa, Foreign Press Association's 2020 Journalist of the Year and Time Person of the Year in 2018, was supposed to travel to the United States on December 19 and return to the Philippines by January to spend the holidays with her ailing mother abroad.
But the Court of Appeals denied her bid to leave the country despite 4 other courts allowing her to do so. Ressa is a Filipino-U.S. dual citizen.