Arrested Philippine journalist says Duterte has 'weaponized' the law against her

One day after Maria Ressa was released on bail, she told As It Happens she has no intention of backing down from reporting critically on the president of the Philippines.

'We should never let the threat stop us from doing our jobs,' says Rappler's Maria Ressa of cyber-libel charge

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa speaks to the media as she arrives at the National Bureau of Investigation headquarters after her arrest in Manila on Wednesday. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)
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Transcript

After spending the night behind bars, the head of a Philippines news site accused President Rodrigo Duterte of trying to threaten her into silence.

Rappler's Maria Ressa, who has aggressively covered Duterte's administration, was arrested Wednesday on charges stemming from a libel complaint regarding a 2012 story about a businessman. The government denies the arrest had anything to do with her journalism.

She and Rappler's parent company are already fighting what they say are trumped-up tax evasion charges from 2018. 

Ressa spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Thursday, the day after she was released on bail. Here is part of their conversation.

What has this past 36 hours been like for you?

Shocking, I think. ... I just didn't expect to be arrested for something so ludicrous.

Tell us about the arrest itself.

I was in a meeting in the office and apparently the officers from the National Bureau Investigation got through the alerts that we had put in the building security. They came up in and came through, and the next thing I know is that they're standing outside the conference room.

They were attempting to serve a warrant. 

Our lawyers went to the court [and] began to try to post bail at 7 p.m. — two hours before it closed. But the judge in that court refused to accept the bail.

We looked at the arrest warrant and it was missing something that was fundamental and necessary for me to be able to post bail — something called the information sheet.

So it was like a circle that was set up to keep me in detention for the evening.

You're a journalist. I mean, your job is to be doing the news — and yet you have a tremendous knowledge of the whole process of being arrested, posting bail, what to look for in warrants. I mean, this is a new skill set you probably didn't expect to have to acquire as a reporter.

I've learned that the best defense is to actually understand every step. Know the normal process and then look for the times when it shifts or is unusual — and there were many things that were unusual about the way I was treated last night.

The officers of the National Bureau of Investigation, their leaders were courteous, but one man actually tried to prevent our reporters from livestreaming the event. 

Maria Ressa, who was named a Time magazine Person of the Year for her reporting on the violent drug war in the Philippines, talks to Adrienne Arsenault about why a free press is more important than ever and why Canada should be vigilant of election interference. 10:08

I understand that they said to the person who was trying to record the arrest is that: "You don't want to be next."

That's a threat. And, you know, I was so proud of our reporter because she just came right back and said "I'm doing my job" and she kept rolling.

This shouldn't be the case. You know, we have, as journalists, we have our rights — the freedom the press, the clauses of the constitution. In my case, as an individual, I am now very clear that my rights were abused.

I should not have spent the night in detention. I had the right to bail.

Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has openly lambasted journalists who write unfavourable stories about him. (Bullit Marquez/Associated Press)

President Rodrigo Duterte today has a spokesperson for him [who] insisted in an interview that the cyber-libel charges have nothing to do with a government. ... How do you respond to the government?

Actions speak louder than words. I posted bail six times in less than two months, and these charges are ridiculous. You know, I shouldn't have to do this. The law has been weaponized.

What message does this send to other journalists in the Philippines?

Be afraid. I'm a cautionary tale.

This is part of the reason after I posted bail, I faced my colleagues, you know, I faced the journalists. And I hope they got the clear message that I was trying to send, which is: Don't be afraid.

This is meant to intimidate. This is meant to harass, to make it so difficult so that we cannot ask hard questions, so that we can't get to the truth to hold the powerful to account. That's a recipe for disaster for our democracy.

At some point, you must think, "Well, I just have to go along with all the others, then."

Look, I've been doing this a long time. I've been a journalist for more than 30 years and I feel like this is the moment where it actually counts.

You know what it's like when you're preparing for a big story, right? And when you get that big story as a reporter, you run with it. You don't sleep. You don't eat. You go with the story.

The tax fraud charges ... come with a potential 10 years in prison. This this cyber case, if you're found guilty of cyber libel, you face a possible sentence of 12 years. I mean, at some point, this could actually put you in prison.

I don't know where it will end and that threat is there. But we should never let the threat stop us from doing our jobs.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

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