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International press freedom NGOs slam attempts to silence journalist with arrest

Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, journalist Maria Ressa, arrested again in move said to be “intended to muzzle and intimidate” an investigative journalist – criticism that is echoed in Malta.

Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2018, Maria Ressa, a Filipino journalist and owner of online news site Rappler, also known for her outspoken criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte, has again been arrested on arrival at Manila airport on Friday.

Already facing charges of “cyber libel” that were filed in February, carrying a possible 12-year jail sentence, she now faces additional accusations that she violated an ‘anti-dummy law’ that states any Filipino media must be 100% Filipino owned.

Rappler has repeatedly stated that foreign investment in the news portal does not constitute ownership.

The intimidation and harassment being faced by Ressa is a symptom of the increased hostility towards journalists from autocratic rulers and strongmen stoking the flames of populism while eliminating those journalists that stand in their way, international press freedom organisations have said.

The increasing criticism that Malta faces from international bodies on press freedom in the country is also addressing the same symptom of this trend. Malta has already faced the worst scenario, with the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on 16 October, 2017.

The Filipino government have been accused by the Committee to Protect Journalists of “abusing their authority” and “manipulating the law to muzzle and intimidate one of its most credible media critics.”

A statement given by Shawn Crispin also called on the authorities to stop the “egregious harassment” against her and her colleagues.

Ressa, 55, posted bail for over $4,000, the seventh in recent months, and called her latest arrest “a violation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution”.

The charges filed against her in February related to a story she published in 2012  on Filipino businessman Wilfredo Keng and his alleged links to the human trafficking and drugs.

Ressa said during a press conference in March that the Philippines was now at the front of a global fight for democracy against the “weaponisation of social media against perceived enemies like journalists”.

The current situation for journalists in the country was described as dire at the hands of Duterte who “threatens media that writes, criticises and consistently monitors ongoing government activities, policies and statements”.

Any criticism of the Duterte government is branded as “fake news” and this is having a chilling effect on press freedom in the country, according to former President of the Phillippine American Press Club, Esther Chavez.

Ressa’s treatment has been widely reported on by human rights organisations and was condemned by the International Press Institute, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) who called the charges “spurious” and “trumped up”.

Head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, Daniel Bastard, said: “The judicial harassment of Rappler by various government agencies is bordering on the absurd,” noting that the website and its journalists were being silenced and that they stood as an example of democracy that must be “defended at all cost”.

Meanwhile, in Malta, Joseph Muscat and his government continue to use the phrase “fake news” to dismiss any criticism of the country, his government, or his ministers. It’s a favourite term with Muscat’s “star” Minister Konrad Mizzi who has been embroiled in one scandal after another since the Labour Party was elected in 2013.

Pro-government trolls also continuously harass and intimidate journalists, even calling for “more bombs“.

The UN, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Europe are among the international bodies that have raised the alarm around declining media freedom in Malta.

In a recent vote, MEPs overwhelmingly voted for scrutiny of the rule of law in Malta, and called on the government to launch immediate independent public inquiry into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, a demand the government has consistently rejected.

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