Why the arrest of Maria Ressa is worrisome and why we need to speak up

Dear fellow citizens,

I was on the road last week when I heard word that Maria Ressa was about to be arrested for cyber libel. The impending arrest had always been dangling over Maria’s head but the news still came as a shock to me when it actually happened.

In an interview, Maria said that she had already paid bail six times. Mind boggling. These cases have also been filed in different courts. One court per case should have been enough. Filing in different courts has been an old tactic in both the public and private sectors to harass the one charged. It can also be financially crippling.

The Palace has distanced itself from the cyber libel case, as well as her arrest, insisting that this was personal between two private individuals. However, it is not hard to connect the dots. Rappler has been front and center in several speeches and press conferences held by the President. The animosity towards Rappler (and Maria) is palpable. Pia Ranada, Rappler’s correspondent assigned to Malacanang, remains banned.

The move against Rappler, SEC’s revocation of its license, followed by tax evasion charges (because they are being classified as a securities dealer instead of a media organization), were obviously government-initiated as they involved government agencies.

Then came this cyber libel charge. From what I know, this should not have even been a case at all, given the circumstances:

  • The article in question was published May 2012. The Cybercrime Prevention Act passed September 2012, months AFTER publication of the article. How could there be a crime committed when there was no such law yet at the time it was published?
  • The Revised Penal Code clearly specifies that for libel and other similar offenses, there is a prescription period of one (1) year within which to file charges. Obviously, the prescriptive period had expired way, way before Wilfredo Keng filed his charge in 2017. What could have prompted him to file this case now?
  • The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) contends that there is “continuing publication” since the article was updated in 2014. This theory is being contested as it could be used and abused. In Rappler’s case, the update involved “correction to a wrong spelling of the word “evasion” and modifications to the URL of images”. These were editing corrections (normal even for bloggers like me) and was not meant to re-publish the article as a new one.

READ: Timeline of Rappler’s cyber libel case

Here’s the thing. From my perspective as an ordinary citizen, this is not just about Maria being charged with cyber libel by a private individual. The end goal I see is to take her (and Rappler) down. And when they are taken down, it will send a strong message…anyone else in media who criticizes government can be fair game. And once press freedom is stifled, who is next to be harassed? Bloggers? Advocates? Outspoken citizens? The scenario is not far-fetched. Didn’t police visit schools and organizations some time ago asking for certain lists of individuals? It only stopped when enough voices protested against this violation of human rights.

I worry that journalists would be silenced, one by one, with charges as questionable as the cyber libel charge against Maria Ressa. Press freedom is at stake. Democracy is at stake. In the long run, the victims, if we allow it, will be ALL OF US. We will all live under the shadow of constant fear.

This is definitely not the future I envision for my kids and my kids’ kids. This young generation can be pretty outspoken. My lola, if she were still alive, would be shocked by their frankness. But this same candor, often mistaken by elders as lack of respect, has also been matched by a fervor and love of country that my generation has forgotten since EDSA People Power. I would never want their fire to go out. But if we do not speak for them now, what quality of life will they eventually have  under the watch of the powers? Can they still speak truth to power if there is always the threat of a backlash hovering above their heads all the time?

If you think that this does not concern you since you have not engaged in anything political and are simply focused on your studies, work, or family, remember the words of Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor, an outspoken critic and public foe of Adolf Hitler, and who spent seven years in concentration camps:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Now, read the saying again but this time, replace “socialists”, “trade unionists”, and “Jews” with “media”, “advocates”, and “critics”. That could be us down the road.

It is so much easier for me to stay silent. I should be retiring already to spend my days focusing on my passion projects and my family. But having lived through martial law, when radical conversations were done in whispers and the written word had to be carefully checked so as not to draw the ire of the powers, I have come to value press freedom immensely. It is not perfect. As with any other industry, there are bad apples within media. But I will take the bad with the good any time rather than have  the free press disappear altogether. I will continue to speak out as an elder in this society so that the next generation’s future will be one where democracy reigns supreme and freedom of expression is respected.

Let’s defend press freedom. Let’s defend democracy. Let’s defend our children’s future. With boldness and truth.


Citizen Jane