Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has accused the Philippine government of an “increasingly transparent campaign” to silence Maria Ressa after the journalist was charged with cyber libel for the third time.
Ressa, one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists, already faces a series of legal charges that could lead to about 100 years in prison.
Last week, Ressa, the CEO of the news website Rappler, was arrested again for a story that alleged students had paid a university professor in exchange for a pass – a report that she did not write.
Ressa, currently on bail, was convicted of cyber libel in June in relation to a separate report that alleged corruption by a supreme court justice. She is appealing against the judgment, which could lead to up to six years in prison.
In November, she was charged with cyber libel again in relation to a previous tweet that she had sent. The tweet referred to a published news story that described alleged ties between the judge and a businessman.
Clooney, the Lebanese-British barrister who is leading a team of international lawyers representing Ressa, said she hoped that Philippine judges would put an end to the “legal charade”, adding: “Here we go again: this is now the 10th arrest warrant issued against Ms Ressa and the third libel prosecution for a public interest story,” she said.
“It is the latest step in the Philippine government’s increasingly transparent campaign to silence her and shut down her news site, just as they shut down the leading broadcaster in the country.”
The broadcaster ABS-CBN was forced off air by a cease-and-desist order in May after its franchise licence expired. The network, which had been repeatedly attacked by President Rodrigo Duterte, has not yet been able to renew its licence.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, who also leads the international counsel team acting for Ressa, said the journalist was being penalised for Rappler’s reporting. “The prosecutor should never have charged Ms Ressa with this ‘crime’. The court should not have issued an arrest warrant, and must now dismiss this baseless prosecution,” she said.
Rappler has scrutinised the administration of Duterte, exposing bot armies, corruption and documenting his brutal anti-drugs campaign, which has led, by some estimations, to tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings.
The president has accused Rappler of publishing “fake news”.
Ressa and Rappler reporter Rafael Talabong, who wrote the story alleging that a professor had accepted payment to pass students, each posted bail of 30,000 pesos ($625) on Thursday. Ressa’s lawyers say the article was in the public interest and supported by multiple sources of evidence.
Prior to publication, Rappler contacted the professor multiple times to ask for a response for the allegations, but he did not comment on the claims. In his subsequent complaint to police, he said the story contained “libellous, malicious and defamatory statements”.
In addition to the cyberlibel charges, Ressa also faces two criminal cases alleging illegal foreign ownership in her companies, and investigations into her old tax returns.