On the evening of February 13, Maria Ressa, CEO of news website Rappler and one of the Philippines’ top journalists, was arrested on the basis of a digital libel case. She was allowed to post bail and leave police custody only in the following day.
The arrest has all the marks of harassment and intimidation. It calls attention to Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte’s war against critics of his government, whose number continues to grow, and his numerous crimes against the people.
The libel case was filed in 2017, five years after the Rappler story came out. The National Bureau of Investigation already closed the case in early 2018, but suddenly filed the case before the Department of Justice which swiftly acted on it.
It was filed by Wilfredo Keng, a businessman, who is linked to a close ally of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and who is being accused of receiving a huge project in the controversial Manila Bay reclamation under Duterte.
The story also saw online print four months before the enactment of the Philippines’ Cybercrime Prevention Act, under which the libel case was filed. Many groups have criticized this retroactive implementation of the law.
The case is bailable, but Ressa was arrested after working hours, making it difficult for her to immediately post bail. A judge, who by law could have decided against the attempt to jail her, refused to allow her to post bail on that night.
This is the sixth time that Ressa has posted bail. She has paid a total of more than US$ 5,000 in bail. This, critics observe, is higher than the bail posted by Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the dictator, for conviction for graft.
Journalism has been under attack since Duterte became president. Twelve journalists have been killed under Duterte, and the Philippines is the deadliest country for journalists in southeast Asia, and among the deadliest in the world.
When Ressa was arrested, progressive news websites in the country were also under attack. Bulatlat.com, PinoyWeekly.org, and Altermidya.org as well as progressive organizations’ websites were taken down by an online attack.
Duterte’s war vs. critics
Ressa’s arrest is just the latest in Duterte’s attacks against critics of his government. With the support of the US and China, he has bought and intimidated the military and police, the legislature and judiciary, into submission.
Not only has he verbally insulted his critics, he has also openly threatened them – with legal cases, jailing, or even death. In this, he is supported by an army of paid “influencers” and trolls in social media, apart from government-owned media.
He has attacked the elite opposition non-stop. His vice-president faces the threat of being removed from the position. Her right, guaranteed by the Constitution, to replace Duterte should he become incapable, is actively being questioned.
He orchestrated the removal and replacement of the Supreme Court’s chief justice. A senator, who is a vocal critic, is in jail because of trumped-up charges. Another senator and critic also faced the threat of arrest and imprisonment.
The powerful Catholic Church, which backed the ouster of two former presidents, is not spared. Aside from criticizing the Church’s supposed God, he has called priests sexual predators, and called on people to rob and kill bishops.
The heaviest blow is sustained, however, by the Philippine Left, both the underground Left and the open mass movement. The Left has served as the backbone and main force of ouster movements against previous presidents.
The long-standing martial law in the second largest island of Mindanao and the heavy military deployment in three regions has foisted human-rights violations on communities accused of supporting the left-wing New People’s Army.
Almost 200 activist peasants and indigenous peoples have been killed. Many activists are being jailed on the basis of trumped-up charges. One well-known activist and peace advocate was gunned down while sleeping in a bus.
Long before Ressa’s arrest, Duterte has been on attack mode since he declared candidacy for president in late 2015. He promised instant solution to drugs, criminality and corruption and promoted a populist “us” versus “them” thinking.
His “war on drugs,” in reality a massacre of poor street-level drug addicts and pushers, has killed more than 12,000, according to conservative estimates. This continues to the present, despite local and international condemnation.
While honoring economic and military treaties with the US, Duterte has also accommodated China’s economic and military interests. He has sided with China in its territorial disputes with the country, earning widespread condemnation.
He has imposed a tax measure that increases the taxes on petroleum products, the country’s top import. This has resulted in an increase in the prices of basic goods and services and the highest inflation levels in recent years.
He has defended, and allied with, the most well-known plunderers and human-rights violators in the country, chief among whom are Arroyo and the Marcoses. He has aided the Marcoses in their ongoing campaign to reclaim the presidency.
He is now working to change the 1987 Constitution to allow big foreign capitalists to directly own more land and businesses, extend the terms of incumbent government officials, including him, and impose authoritarian rule.
Despite his attacks, or precisely because of these and his crimes, opposition to Duterte is growing. Talk about ouster through another “People Power” uprising is rife. Duterte’s attacks
has created the united front that will make this possible.