JOINT STATEMENT ON THE

HARASSMENT OF MARIA RESSA

 
The members and partners of the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation strongly denounce the continuing harassment of Rappler editor Maria Ressa and the news organization she leads. Her arrest on February 13, 2019 is a betrayal of the guarantees of press freedom and freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution. More, its callous execution is an indictment of a weakened justice system; its devious grounds a dangerous fabrication that affects not just journalists, but everyone.
 
The fight against organized disinformation is a fight in defense of democracy. In forums across the country—Cebu, Angeles, Cagayan de Oro, Baguio, Iloilo, Metro Manila—the deleterious impact of “fake news” and other forms of disinformation on the democratic project has been confirmed again and again. But organized disinformation is not an isolated problem; it is part of a larger assault on democracy.
 
• The President’s threats against a TV network and a newspaper;
• His declaration that press freedom is not a right but a privilege;
• His abusive language directed at journalists;
• The threatened disenfranchisement of media organizations;
• The swarming by bots and trolls of critical or independent voices on social media;
• The distributed denial-of-service attacks on progressive news sites;
• The blacklisting of reporters from coverage of the presidential palace;
• The sidelining or unseating of independent government officials;
• The continuing attempt to change the Constitution or expand martial law or lay the groundwork for a revolutionary government
—These, and more, are the larger context for the attacks on Rappler.
 
The administration has sought to revoke Rappler’s corporate license, manufactured tax evasion charges against it, and manipulated the legal process to file a now-notorious cyber-libel case. This is state harassment of a crucial news source, one that has reported deeply on the extrajudicial killings caused by an extremely violent campaign against illegal drugs, provided incontrovertible proof of organized disinformation in the digital space, and fact-checked dubious pro-administration claims on Facebook.
 
The Constitution guarantees the right of a news organization like Rappler to do all these and more; the arrest is only the latest instalment in a series of attacks against the guaranteed rights of a free press and of free speech. But the way the arrest was effected—at close of business hours, on only the second day of a 10-day window, and based on a warrant prompted by an inexplicably revived case—suggests that the justice department intended to harass a citizen of the republic. The incomplete nature of the arrest warrant issued by a Manila court and the refusal of a Pasay night court to accept the plea to post bail show that a frail and compromised justice system failed to help that citizen, when that citizen most needed help.
 
Worst of all, the extreme legal theory the National Bureau of Investigation used to charge Ressa—that of “continuing publication” in a website—is fundamentally unjust and highly dangerous; it opens every person who posts online or on social media to the legal absurdity of a prescription-less crime of libel. This is useful for authoritarian regimes; it is anathema to democracies.
 
To all these attacks, the response is as urgent as it is clear: Fight back, to defend democracy.
 
In this time of peril, the members and partners of the Consortium on Democracy & Disinformation—a network of journalists, academics, bloggers, and other independents across the country—stand with Maria Ressa, Rappler, and Philippine democracy.
 
#FightDisinfo #DefendPressFreedom #DefendDemocracy
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