Maria Ressa’s International Legal Team Call for New Criminal Cyberlibel Charges against her to be Dropped

On behalf of the international legal team representing award-winning journalist Maria Ressa, Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC condemn the issuing of a tenth arrest warrant against her and call for the latest set of spurious ‘cyberlibel’ charges against her to be dropped.  

New Criminal Charges

This latest warrant against Ms Ressa, former CNN bureau chief and TIME Person of the Year, is the second warrant that has been issued for her arrest in just six weeks.1 The prosecution relates to an article published on concerning whistleblower reports of alleged corruption at a leading university - De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde - in Manila.  The university issued a statement at the time confirming that it was itself investigating the allegations.  Reporter Rambo Talabong, who authored the article entitled “Thesis for sale: Benilde students say they paid P20,000 to pass” was provided with multiple sources of evidence from the whistleblower, including:

  • A copy of his complaint to the College that faculty member Ariel Pineda accepted payments in exchange for passing students’ theses, which formed part of the records of the College’s internal proceedings;

  • Facebook communications between the whistleblower and a student who had paid a bribe to pass his thesis, which Mr Talabong was able to independently confirm as authentic; 

  • Details of calls between the whistleblower and a second student who had paid a bribe, confirming the mechanism by which the bribes were paid;

  • A deposit slip provided by the second student evidencing payment of the bribe to a middleman; and

  • A statement by a former member of faculty staff who sat on the thesis panels recounting two instances where the thesis marking process was not followed under Mr Pineda as thesis coordinator, including one instance where he had personally confirmed with Mr Pineda his instruction to approve a student’s thesis before its defence.

Over several weeks, Mr Talabong extensively interviewed the whistleblower.  Mr Talabong also sought comment from Mr Pineda by email and telephone on multiple occasions prior to publication. After the story was published, the Chancellor of the College issued a statement stating that Human Resources Services were “in the process of completing the investigation.”

Ms Ressa had no involvement with the writing, editing or publication of the article. She recused herself, as she sat as a member of the Board of Trustees of the College, a fact she disclosed to her editors to avoid a potential conflict of interest. Despite this, she is charged alongside Mr Talabong and faces a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment if convicted.

Background: State-Sponsored Persecution of Ms Ressa

The filing of this arrest warrant follows Ms Ressa’s conviction for cyberlibel in June 2020. A Philippines court sentenced her to up to six years’ imprisonment for an article published on concerning alleged corruption by a supreme court justice facing impeachment at that time: a matter of clear public interest. Ms Ressa is appealing her conviction.

This latest criminal prosecution also follows shortly after Ms Ressa was charged with cyberlibel for a second time in November 2020, on the absurd basis of a single tweet that simply reposted an old newspaper article that had already been published.  If convicted on these and all the other spurious proceedings currently issued against her, Ms Ressa faces the rest of her life in prison.

This state-sponsored campaign of harassment against Ms Ressa and Rappler on account of their public interest reporting on corruption and human rights violations in the Philippines has been widely condemned internationally. Last month Ms Ressa was specifically identified by the US Congress for protection under legislation directing the imposition of sanctions on foreign government officials involved in the intimidation of independent journalists.2  In a joint motion for a resolution in September last year, the European Parliament called for all “politically motivated charges” against her and her colleagues to be dropped. The UN has highlighted “the staggering cost of the relentless and systematic assault on the most basic rights of Filipinos at the Government” and the need for “robust intervention by the UN.”  

In addition, the U.S. Department of State said it was “concerned” by Ms Ressa’s conviction for cyberlibel and called for “resolution of the case in a way that reinforces…freedom of expression, including for members of the press.”  The European Union stated that the conviction “raises serious doubts over the respect for freedom of expression as well as for the rule of law in the Philippines.”  And the Media Freedom Coalition of States – a group of approximately 40 states led by the United Kingdom and Canada – issued a statement condemning “the various charges against Maria Ressa” and “the increasing restrictions on freedom of the press in the Philippines.”

International Legal Team Comments

Commenting on the latest arrest warrant, Ms Clooney said:

“Here we go again: this is now the tenth arrest warrant issued against Ms Ressa and the third libel prosecution for a public interest story. It is the latest step in the Philippine government’s increasingly transparent campaign to silence her and shut down her news site, just as they shut down the leading broadcaster in the country. We hope that defenders of democracy will stand up for the press and that Philippine judges will put an end to this legal charade”.

Ms Gallagher QC said:

“This is the latest reprehensible attempt by the authorities in the Philippines to penalise Ms Ressa for her courageous and brave reporting, this time through a nonsensical ‘cyberlibel’ prosecution, threatening her with imprisonment for an article she did not write and did not edit. ‘Cyberlibel’ should not be a crime, as the United Nations Human Rights Committee has made clear. The Prosecutor should never have charged Ms Ressa with this ‘crime’. The Court should not have issued an arrest warrant, and must now dismiss this baseless prosecution.

But above all else, the international community must not stand for this campaign of persecution against Ms Ressa and this ongoing assault on freedom of expression and democratic values. The European Union is a champion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law worldwide, and it has a close and longstanding relationship with the Philippines. Now is the time for the European Union to make clear to the Government of the Philippines that this reprehensible conduct must end and all charges against Ms Ressa must be dropped.”

Speaking about these new developments, Ms Ressa said:

“This is my tenth arrest warrant in less than two years, another criminal charge and potential jail time for an article I didn’t write, edit or supervise – but which Rappler and I stand behind. It is also the first arrest warrant against one of our reporters, Rambo Talabong.

No journalist should have to face this kind of persecution just for doing our jobs. These renewed efforts to intimidate us only strengthen our resolve to protect our rights and demand justice.”

Ms Clooney and Ms Gallagher lead the international counsel team acting for Ms Ressa, working with fellow barristers Can Yeginsu and Claire Overman. The team is also working closely with Peter Lichtenbaum, Stephen Rademaker, Kurt Wimmer and Ambassador Daniel Feldman of Covington & Burling LLP, as well as Ms. Ressa’s counsel team in Manila.

1 In a separate case, a warrant was issued for her arrest on 27th November 2020 and she appeared in court in December 2020.

2 The legislation, signed into law on 21st December 2020, requires the Secretary of State to deny entry into the United States to foreign government officials and their immediate family members when the Secretary has credible information that the foreign official has been involved in a gross violation of human rights.  Congressional report language accompanying the legislation directs the Secretary of State to apply the provision "to foreign government officials involved in threatening, wrongfully imprisoning, or otherwise depriving of liberty independent journalists who speak out or publish about official corruption or other abuses, including Maria Ressa in the Philippines…".