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UNHCR weighs in on Ressa’s arrest

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern over the arrest of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa following cyber libel charges against her, urging the country’s Justice department to veer away from political pressures in handling media cases. 

For Rupert Colville, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman, Ressa’s arrest, which caught international attention, had become the “latest element in pattern of intimidation of a media outlet that has fiercely guarded its independence and its right to conduct in-depth investigations and to criticize the authorities.”

“Maria Ressa, who has frequently been critical of President [Rodrigo] Duterte and his administration’s policies, has previously faced charges of tax evasion as well as attempts to revoke Rappler’s license to operate. These have been widely viewed as efforts to silence Rappler’s independent investigative reporting and critical voice, by misusing judicial and administrative powers, including libel laws,” Colville said. 

“Rappler journalists have also allegedly been threatened with physical harm,” he added, emphasizing that the international organization remained “very concerned” about the state of Ressa. 

In related developments:

• Malacañang said Ressa was a “walking testament” that press freedom remained vibrant in the country, reacting to criticism her arrest was meant to stifle opposition.

Ressa said her legal plight showed “how far the government will go to try to silence a voice.”

President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson Salvador Panelo, however, said Ressa was “the walking testament that freedom of the press, as well as of expression, are very alive in this country.”

“Until now, she’s still using that freedom to assault the government and this administration,” he told ANC, which was beamed nationwide.

The Philippines, he added, “is the freest country with respect to expression of oneself and publication of newspapers,” considering that the administration itself had not filed a complaint against any journalist.

• Senator Francis Pangilinan said he was baffled when the government suddenly became interested in clearing its name before the international community on the arrest of Ressa.

He noted that before, the Philippine government was just ignoring criticisms on extrajudicial killings as a result of the drug war.

“Aren’t the President’s defenders enough to parry the views on the apparently harassment incident?” he asked. 

“Could it be that Secretary Martin Andanar and the PCOO people just want a whiff of winter, thus, the sudden urge to go into this information caravan?” also questioned Pangilinan as he pressed on the  PCOO spending for this trip which involved the taxpayers’ money.

“Isn’t it more worthwhile and beneficial to spend it in helping the DOH in its information drive to get as many children vaccinated to help curb the measles outbreak?” 

On Wednesday authorities from the National Bureau of Investigation stormed in Ressa’s office, serving the arrest warrant in regard to the cyber libel case filed by businessman William Keng in May 2012. 

Ressa then wasted no time in pursuing legal remedies on the eve of her arrest, but a Pasay City Court refused to process her temporary release over jurisdiction issue. 

Ressa spent the night with the authorities. She was freed the next day.

The case stemmed from a story about Keng first published in May 2012 or four months before the Cybercrime Act of 2012 was enacted. 

After investigating Keng’s complaint, the NBI’s legal and evaluation service junked the case against Ressa. 

Rappler reported that the NBI legal team “found that the one-year prescriptive period for libel had lapsed with the complaint filed five years after the publication of the story.”

However, the NBI revived the complaint on March 2, 2018, recommending the indictment of Rappler on cyber libel charges even if the Cybercrime Law was signed into law in September 2012.

With the seeming “flip-flop” of NBI, Colville then called on the Philippine government to conduct an “independent and thorough review of all charges” against Ressa and other media professionals.

The UN official also urged the Department of Justice to dismiss cases that are “clearly politically motivated or are not in line with international human rights standards, including freedom of opinion and expression.”

“Any charges that appear to be aimed at preventing journalists from undertaking their profession, thereby depriving the public of their right to information, should be dropped immediately,” Colville continued.

“Attempts to intimidate or muzzle independent news sources has a serious effect on freedom of opinion and expression in general, and the rights of journalists to carry out their professional duties safely and without fear of reprisal are clear under international law,” he added.

Moreover, Colville said that UN Special Rapporteurs David Kaye, Anges Callamard, and Michel also expressed their indignation, describing Ressa’s arrest as a “very serious escalation” of media harassment.

“The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights fully endorses the positions they have taken,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the Palace on Monday also called on those who rallied on Ressa’s “unworthy cause” not to just take one side of the story. 

“What those who invoke the freedom of the expression and (freedom) of the press forgot is that even an ordinary citizen has the right to demand his rights against journalists or columnists if his/her rights have been violated,” Panelo said in a Palace press briefing. 

“They have their own rights too. The Supreme Court has always said that the freedom of the press is not absolute. If you violated the rights of another person, then you will be held accountable.” 

For Panelo, Ressa only wanted to have a “special treatment” from the country’s judicial processes. 

“That will not be possible. All of us are equal. Fair should be fair.” 

In a separate interview, Panelo even stated that the Philippines remains “the freest country with respect to expression of oneself and publication of newspaper.” 

“In fact, I would even say that she [Ressa] is a walking testament that the a freedom of expression and freedom of the press are very alive in this country. Why did I say that? Because until now, she is still using that freedom to assault the government and this administration,” Panelo told ANC, maintaining that the “high profile” journalist should not blame the government for the “inexperience” of her lawyers.

Topics: United Nations High Commissioner for Human Right , Maria Ressa , Rappler , Rupert Colville , Salvador Panelo
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