Maria Ressa, a fearless Filipino American journalist, may go from one of Time magazine's 2018 "Persons of the Year" to six years in prison for a "cyber libel" charge — a ridiculous accusation the Committee to Protect Journalists decries as "an outrageous crime against press freedom."
The U.S. government should be equally outspoken in defending its constitutional values — and one of its citizens — and directly pressure Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte to end his harassment of Ressa and her online publication, Rappler, as well as other Filipino journalists trying to truthfully report on the country.
The case against Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr., a former Rappler staffer, is both a travesty and a technicality. It involves a 2012 article about a businessman allegedly tied to drug trafficking that was published four months before a draconian new libel law was passed. Two years later, a Rappler staffer fixed a one-word typographical error in the original article, which created an opening to charge Ressa and Santos in a case that Patricia Gallagher Newberry, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, called in a statement "a huge setback for press freedom" that "sends the message that other journalists could also be punished for speaking truth to power when it comes to the Duterte government."
That message has been sent repeatedly by Duterte, who has called journalists "sons of bitches" who are "not exempt from assassination." Just last month, his government shut down ABS-CBN, the Philippines' biggest broadcasting network, which like Ressa and Rappler had the guts to criticize the Duterte regime.
The Philippines ranked 136th out of 180 nations on Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index. And the type of repression represented by Duterte is accelerating worldwide. "This is a much broader issue than what is happening to her and her newspaper; it is reflective of an authoritarian mind-set that has taken over in many countries today," Jane Kirtley, the director of the University of Minnesota's Silha Center for Media Ethics and the Law, told an editorial writer.
The Philippines is ostensibly a democracy. And ostensibly a U.S. ally. It's acting like neither as Duterte falsely accuses the CIA of funding Rappler, and overall flouts the values the U.S. espouses. Or at least used to. At a meeting with Duterte, President Donald Trump laughed when his Filipino counterpart called journalists "spies," and the president hasn't said anything about Ressa's and Santos' convictions. As for the State Department, it could only muster a milquetoast statement expressing "concern."
Can't find the words? How about these, from Ressa's attorney Amal Clooney: "Today a court in the Philippines became complicit in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse. This conviction is an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines."
If Trump, who uses Stalin-era slanders like "enemy of the people" to refer to the constitutionally protected press corps, won't call out Duterte's government, Congress must. Republican lawmakers in particular should show some rare independence from the president. They should hear and heed the words of Ressa, who said outside the courtroom: "We're redefining what the new world is going to look like, what journalism is going to become. Are we going to lose freedom of the press?"