MANILA - Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, a prominent critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, was rearrested on Friday in what press freedom advocates called retaliation for her news site’s dogged coverage of the government.
Ressa and her website Rappler have been hit with a string of criminal charges in recent months that have sent shock waves through the Philippine media scene, prompting allegations she and her team are being targeted for their work.
“I’m being treated like a criminal when my only crime is to be an independent journalist,” Ressa told reporters before her arrest at Manila airport, where she had just landed from a trip abroad.
Bail for Ressa, who holds Philippine and American passports, is normally automatic in this case and she went before a judge on Friday morning.
After her release on the equivalent of $1,700 bail, she told reporters, “The press in this country is under attack. … We won’t take the threat sitting down. The rule of law has been weaponized.”
She was taken into custody on a charge that she allowed her name to be used to circumvent a Philippine law against foreign ownership of media properties, a charge that stems from a 2015 investment into Rappler.
Under the constitution, the media is an economic sector that is reserved for Filipinos or Filipino-controlled entities.
Philippine authorities arrested Ressa in February on an internet libel charge, which sparked international condemnation and allegations that she was being targeted for Rappler’s critical stance on Duterte.
“This case against Ressa … is unprecedented and speaks volumes of the Duterte administration’s determination to shut the website down for its credible and consistent reporting on the government,” said Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch.
Rappler has reported extensively, and unflatteringly, on Duterte’s deadly narcotics crackdown, which has claimed thousands of lives and which rights groups say may be a crime against humanity.
But it also casts a critical eye generally on the president’s leadership and his government, including the nation’s deep-rooted corruption and Manila’s moves to court Chinese trade and investment.
Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign is his signature initiative and he fiercely defends it against criticism.
High-profile critics have wound up in jail or been pushed out of their jobs in government, including the nation’s first female chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Ressa insists the site is not anti-Duterte, saying it is just doing its job to hold the government to account.
This latest case comes after she as well as current and former associates of Rappler have been bit by government prosecutors with tax and securities fraud charges.
The country’s corporate regulator revoked Rappler’s business licence last year over the bond sale, but the site continued operating as it appealed the case in the courts.
Last month, Ressa spent a night in detention but eventually posted bail for allegedly libelling a businessman in a news article written in 2012.
Ressa’s legal team said this latest case would not stop Rappler from doing its work.
“Let it be clear that these acts of harassment will not deter our clients from doing their duty as journalists,” legal counsel Francis Lim said in a statement. “We believe in the rule of law.”
The government has repeatedly denied that the numerous cases against Ressa and Rappler are connected to journalism, saying the law is being applied evenly and fairly.