The libel trial of a high-profile journalist has opened in the Philippines in a case that she and press freedom advocates see as government retaliation for her news website’s critical reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte.
Maria Ressa, who leads online outlet Rappler and was named a Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018 for her journalism, is out on bail and faces years in prison if convicted under the criminal cyber-libel law.
The news portal has written extensively and often critically on Duterte’s policies, including his deadly drugs war that rights groups say may be a crime against humanity.
Besides the libel case, Ressa and Rappler have been hit with 10 other criminal charges over the past year, prompting allegations that authorities are targeting her and her team for their work.
“The government hopes to intimidate us by syphoning both my personal time, our resources,” Ressa, who was not in court, told AFP. “I won’t be intimidated. We continue to do our jobs. The mission of journalism has never been as important as it is today in the Philippines”.
Tuesday’s brief hearing ended after testimony from one minor witness, and the case is set to resume on 30 July.
The case centres on a Rappler report from 2012 about a businessman’s alleged ties to a then-judge of the nation’s top court. Government investigators initially dismissed the businessman’s 2017 complaint about the article, but state prosecutors later decided to file charges.
The legal foundation of the case is a controversial “cybercrime law” aimed at online offences ranging from hacking and internet fraud to child pornography. Ressa, 55, argues the law did not take effect until months after the story was published.
Government lawyers say it is effectively a new article since Rappler had updated it in 2014 to fix a typographical error.
Because the law allows the filing of charges up to 12 years after libel is committed, Ressa said it would have far-ranging implications on constitutionally protected freedom of expression as well as the way Filipinos use social media.
Ressa, who has been arrested twice this year, also faces tax and corporate fraud cases, as does Rappler.
The libel case has drawn international attention, with the Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, and the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright expressing concern over democratic rights.
The prominent rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who joined Ressa’s legal team this month, said the case echoed a recurring theme in her work, where “journalists who expose abuses face arrest while those who commit the abuses do so with impunity”.
Duterte, who denies being behind the case, has singled out Rappler for criticism, also banning it from covering his public events and forbidding government officials from talking to Rappler reporters.
Shortly before being sworn into office in 2016, the then president-elect declared: “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
Rights monitor Reporters Without Borders ranked the Philippines at 134 out of 178 countries on its annual world press freedom index this year, when at least three journalists were killed “most likely by agents working for local politicians”.