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Rappler CEO Maria Ressa arrested in Philippines on libel charges

Critic of Philippines president arrested

Philippine authorities have arrested a prominent journalist who told CBS News earlier this month that she feared she was being persecuted for political reasons. Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor of the Philippines based news website Rappler, was taken into custody on Wednesday, according to her own website.

She was detained on charges of cyber libel, Rappler said, relating to a story published about a Filipino businessman in 2012 — four months before the country's Cybercrime Prevention Act was even enacted.

The Philippine Department of Justice first suggested bringing the charges against Ressa, Rappler and one of the website's researchers at the beginning of February, after what Rappler described as a "flip-flop" by the country's cybercrime investigation agency on whether there was any evidence to suggest malicious action. The man who accused Rappler of libel argued that, while the initial article was published prior to the Cybercrime act, it was updated in 2014, making the new law applicable.

The businessman, Wilfredo Keng, first complained to law enforcement authorities about the Rappler story which alleged that he had links to narcotics and human trafficking, in 2017.

In a statement released after Ressa's arrest on Wednesday, Rappler called the case against it "preposterous and baseless."

The website argued that the reversal of the initial government decision not to bring charges, based on the fact that the article was updated after the relevant law's enactment, set a "a dangerous precedent that puts anyone — not just the media — who publishes anything online perennially in danger of being charged with libel. It can be an effective tool of harassment and intimidation to silence critical reporting on the part of the media. No one is safe."

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa (front L) leaves her office after she was arrested in Manila, Feb. 13, 2019. Getty

Ressa told CBS News on Wednesday, through one of her associates, that she and her colleagues, "are not intimidated. No amount of legal cases, black propaganda, and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line. These legal acrobatics show how far the government will go to silence journalists, including the pettiness of forcing me to spend the night in jail."

As her arrest came after 5 p.m. on Wednesday, with most of the courts closed, Ressa's defense team tried to post bail for her at a night court. The judge refused to accept the bail request, so Ressa was to remain in NBI custody at least for the night.

"They want to pound me into silence"

On Feb. 1, as she faced a separate prosecution in her home country over alleged tax violations, Ressa insisted that the charges were politically motivated and designed to silence her and her news website, which has reported critically on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's violent crackdown on crime and authoritarian tendencies.

Ressa spoke out forcefully about the role U.S.-based social media giants, most notably Facebook, which is hugely popular in the Philippines, had in spreading "tainted" information to in a way that she said was distorting the democratic process worldwide.

"We always say information is power, right? Well, what happens when information is tainted and toxic sludge poisons are introduced into the body of democracy?" she asked.

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa on battling disinformation on social media

Ressa said attacks against her and Rappler began appearing on Facebook in the summer of 2016. After a three-part series Rappler published in October of that year, on social media propaganda, she said she was pummeled by an average of 90 hate messages per hour.

"At the beginning, for about two weeks, I was trying to respond. And then I realized they're not looking for an answer, they want to pound me into silence," Ressa told CBSN's Reena Ninan. "That was when I realized this is something new. It's a new weapon against journalists."

Ressa's arrest comes only about two months after she was recognized in Time Magazine's 2018 "Person of the Year" edition. Time honored a group of journalists, others of whom had already been killed or imprisoned, as "Guardians" in a modern "war on truth." The magazine said it wanted to emphasize the importance of reporters' work in an increasingly hostile world.

Rappler staffers posted video on the website's Facebook page on Wednesday which showed plain-clothes NBI agents speaking to employees. Ressa was detained at the office, but left with the law enforcement agents voluntarily.