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Sunday, May 26, 2019
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Seares: ‘Attack on press freedom’: two clashing views on Maria Ressa arrest for libel

TO MANY journalists, here and abroad, it is a no-brainer: Maria Ressa and Rappler are being persecuted. The lawsuits on alleged tax and libel law violations by the digital news site led by her are “evidence of persecution.”

The administration, on the other hand, argues that the charges are in accordance with law. And Ressa, as other journalists sued for libel do, must submit to the process. That she and her news outfit have not been suppressed as they criticize decisions of government is “testament” to free press and free speech, says the president’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo.

Not all are cheering

It’s interesting but not surprising that not all journalists are on the side of Ressa. An earlier “Media’s Public” article (“Why some journalists don’t get riled over Maria Ressa arrest,” Pachico A. Seares, Sun.Star Cebu, Feb. 14, 2019) offers to explain. No poll has been made but not everyone is cheering for Ressa as “Joan of Arc of press freedom.” In the in-house screening by editors of Philippine Daily Inquirer to pick its 2018 Persons of the Year, Ressa got only one vote.

Some journalists don’t see the arrest as a threat to their work and press freedom, as the cases are “isolated” and no media outlet -- including Rappler, Inquirer and ABS-CBN, often tagged as targets of harassment -- is silenced.

Others think government action against some media sectors is based on facts and the law. The offensive against Ressa may turn out to be wrong and she may be vindicated in the courts in the end but due process is observed.

Still others are wary about Rappler’s brand of journalism, calling it too partisan. There are also among the press supporters of Duterte, just as there were in the time of other president. And, of course, a few are professionally jealous of Ressa for being declared by the foreign media as a martyr of press freedom; they don’t believe her kind of journalism deserves adulation.

Debate between those who believe the Maria Ressa case is an assault on press freedom and those who do not can go on and on. Ignore for now the core questions of law: giving the anti-cyber libel law retroactive effect, extending the prescriptive period of the crime and whether the “fair and true report” was defamatory. Focus instead on just this point:

Is there an assault on press freedom when Ressa is sued for libel, which the law allows, and is subjected to the same process that any other journalist undergoes? Ressa is not immune from a warrant of arrest; other journalists are not.

Listen to how two columnists look at that facet of the debate:

Rappler’s ‘assault’

* Antonio P. Contreras, Manila Times, Feb. 19, 2019:

-- “Rappler has acted, often with audacity, and in some instances with impunity, like a partisan pit bull. And its yellow partisan color is simply too palpable to even hide by any pretension to journalistic integrity... There is simply an overwhelming array of pieces that it tries to project as news but are nothing but one-sided demolition jobs.”

-- An attack on press freedom? “On the contrary, it was Rappler, Santos (the writer) and Ressa who launched an attack on press freedom. They allowed their gross partisanship to violate the code of ethics for journalists when they irresponsibly published an overtly biased piece. “

‘Pattern’ against Rappler

* John Nery, Inquirer, Feb. 19, 2019:

-- “The filing of the libel complaint is not, per se, an assault on press freedom, although journalists have sought to decriminalize libel, as libel suits are used to stop news coverage and publication, or prevent journalists from doing their work.”

-- “The warrant of arrest against Ressa is presumed to be regular... When it was served after office hours, that reflected on the NBI’s conduct, not on Ressa.”

-- The lawsuit “relies on an extreme legal strategy that imperils everyone who posts online or on social media. In that sense, it is an assault not only on freedom of the press but on freedom of expression itself. But the case must also be understood as part of a pattern. It is only one of nine cases filed against Rappler, with more investigations under way. Only those who refuse to see will fail to recognize the orchestrated character of the attacks on Rappler – and thus on a free press.”

Theory to embrace

To Contreras, Rappler was excessively partisan, to which the government responded by unleashing the tax investigations and resurrecting a dead lawsuit filed by a private complainant.

To Nery, the use of an “extreme legal strategy” endangers media’s work and the actions against Rappler create a “pattern” that tells it is persecuting a critic.

Which theory will the journalist will embrace? It depends on how his biases work. He tends to accept arguments that support the views he already holds.

Those who take no side usually believe that press freedom won’t matter unless or until they are hurt by its absence. Often, when that happens, it’s too late.


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