Maria Ressa’s arrest is a warning to every journalist in a democracy

Ressa leaves the Rappler offices.
Ressa leaves the Rappler offices.
Image: Reuters/Eloisa Lopez
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Maria Ressa, founder of the lauded Philippines news site Rappler, was arrested and charged with “cyber libel” today (Feb. 13) in Manila, over a 2012 article that linked a prominent businessman with drug-trafficking.

The crime she is charged with didn’t exist when the article about Wilfredo Keng was published, Rappler has argued in Ressa’s defense.

It’s the latest move by the Rodrigo Duterte government against Rappler, in what journalism and civil rights groups say is a pattern of targeted harassment of critical news organizations.

“It is clear this is part of the administration’s obsession to shut Rappler down and intimidate the rest of the independent Philippine media into toeing the lines,” the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said in a statement. Duterte’s government has threatened other news outlets with investigations, and the Philippines is ranked as the worst place in Southeast Asia for journalists, because of violence and intimidation.

Last November, Ressa gave a grave speech to the Committee to Protect Journalists in Washington DC, warning that the pressure Rappler was feeling in the Philippines was connected to, and in part caused by, conditions in the United States. America’s $470 billion market cap social media giant Facebook is particularly to blame, she said.

Our problems are partly caused by yours. American social media technology platforms, once empowering, now weaponized against journalists, activists, and citizens, spreading lies across borders; and, a president so much like ours whose attacks against the press (and women) give permission to autocrats (like ours) to unleash the dark side of humanity and extend their already vast powers with impunity, especially in countries where institutions have crumbled.

Both the Philippine government and Facebook “seed violence, fear, and lies that poison our democracy,” she said, and the social networks’ ability to cross borders is also encouraging the spread of autocracy.

Facebook connects more than 2.3 billion people around the world, and because of that, national boundaries have collapsed. There is a global playbook, and autocrats are learning from each other…

When President Trump called CNN and The New York Times ’fake news,’ a week later, President Duterte called Rappler fake news. When President Trump took away the accreditation of CNN’s Jim Acosta, he was following what President Duterte did earlier this year to our reporter, Pia Ranada

Facebook played a key role in Duterte’s election, and the social media company encouraged the president to broadcast his inauguration on Facebook Live, the first time for a Filipino president. Many of the allegations against Ressa and Rappler started on Facebook, and quickly spread there.

Facebook had no immediate comment on Ressa’s arrest or its alleged role in the rise of autocrats.