Written by Alexandra Stevenson (Jason Gutierrez contributed reporting from Manila, Philippines.)
It is a scene that Maria Ressa, the co-founder of an online news startup critical of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, has grown accustomed to.
Late Wednesday afternoon, several plainclothes agents from the National Bureau of Investigations arrived in Ressa’s newsroom in Manila, Philippines, with a warrant for her arrest in a digital libel case involving her online news site, Rappler. An hour later, they took her and her lawyer away.
Ressa’s arrest is the most dramatic sign yet of Duterte’s crackdown on the news media in the Philippines. Duterte has not tried to hide his disdain for journalists, calling reporters “sons of bitches” and “spies” and even warning that they are “not exempted from assassination.”
As she left the building flanked by police officers, Ressa addressed reporters, telling them, “I will do the right thing.”
“These legal acrobatics show how far the government will go to silence journalists, including the pettiness of forcing me to spend the night in jail,” she later added in an emailed statement.
Gemma Mendoza, an editor at Rappler, said a judge had denied bail to Ressa.
Chay Hofileña, a Rappler executive, said the arrest was “about media intimidation and media harassment.”
“This is proof,” she added, “because Rappler has been critical of the government and they are very intent on silencing us.”
Ressa had already been served an arrest warrant and turned herself in to authorities in December to face tax evasion charges. This time, the arrest warrant was related to an article that Rappler published in May 2012. In both cases, Ressa has called the charges “unfounded” and part of a larger attack on news outlets in the Philippines.
The arrest Wednesday stems from an indictment filed by the Department of Justice against Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr., a former researcher and writer for Rappler, and involves a 2012 Rappler article saying that Renato Corona, then the chief justice, had used a car that was registered to a businessman named Wilfredo Keng.
The Cybercrime Prevention Act, under which Ressa was charged, was approved four months after the article’s publication and came into effect in October 2012.
In a court filing last year, Ressa denied the charges and called them “baffling and unfounded,” adding that the government was applying a law retroactively.
For several years, Rappler and other news outlets have closely followed a brutal anti-drug war waged by Duterte that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. Their coverage helped to draw international attention to the campaign, resulting in widespread international rebuke.
Duterte has also threatened reporters from other publications and warned that he would not allow the renewal of the license for ABS-CBN, the biggest broadcast news network in the Philippines.
But Ressa has been on the receiving end of an onslaught of legal attacks by the government. Her star political reporter has been stripped of her press pass, equivalent to a White House pass, and Rappler has been banned from covering presidential appearances. She faces a slew of charges related to a handful of different laws including ones governing financial securities and cybercrimes.
The arrest Wednesday provoked an outcry from journalists in the Philippines. The country’s National Union of Journalists said in a statement that the “clearly manipulated charge of cyber libel” was “a shameless act of persecution by a bully government.”
“It may try its damnedest, but we know it will fail,” the statement added of the government and its actions, because “independent Filipino journalists will never allow freedom of the press to be suppressed.”
Ressa created Rappler in 2012 with three high-powered journalists — Lilibeth Frondoso, Glenda Gloria and Hofileña — who cut their teeth as reporters during the “people power” revolt that brought down President Ferdinand Marcos. They shared a view that the internet would be a platform to level the playing field in news and give a voice to the voiceless.
They have been threatened with death and arrested before. Frondoso, head of multimedia at Rappler, once found herself in prison with her newborn child; and Gloria, the managing editor of Rappler, once opened her door to find a black funeral wreath on her doorstep.
Rappler gained traction with the rise of Duterte, a political strongman who came to power amid a wave of populism.
Ressa’s arrest comes as journalists in many parts of the world are facing increasing pressure from their governments. In one glaring example, two Reuters journalists are serving a seven-year prison sentence for reporting on atrocities against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.