Maria Ressa’s international legal team welcome U.S. legislation to protect journalists persecuted by foreign government officials

The international legal team representing award-winning journalist Maria Ressa applauded yesterday’s enactment into U.S. law of legislation directing the imposition of U.S. sanctions on foreign government officials involved in intimidating independent journalists.  Among the journalists specifically identified by Congress for protection under this legislation is Ms. Ressa, former CNN bureau chief in Manila and one of four journalists named Time’s Person of the Year in 2018. 

Ms. Ressa and her news website Rappler have been the targets of a state-sponsored campaign of harassment in the Philippines on account of their exposure of corruption and human rights violations, including the execution of thousands of Filipinos as part of a war on drugs.  Ms. Ressa has been named as a defendant in a total of nine criminal cases, and was convicted in one case earlier this year.  If convicted of all the charges that have been brought against her, she faces potentially decades in prison.

The legislation that has just been signed into law 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 . . .."

Ms Ressa’s legal counsel Amal Clooney said of the new U.S. legislation: “We welcome this recognition by the U.S. Congress that Maria Ressa is one of the most beleaguered champions of press freedom in the world today.  We deeply appreciate Congress's commitment to holding accountable those in the Government of the Philippines who are persecuting her.  Our hope is that those who are abusing the law to extinguish press freedom in the Philippines can be persuaded to drop the unjustified charges they have brought against Ms. Ressa.  But if they do not relent, we will work with the United States and other concerned governments to hold the perpetrators accountable."

Counsel for Ms Ressa, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Can Yeginsu, added:

“Today’s step by the U.S. Congress is a concrete sign of commitment to the rules-based international system and human rights standards protecting public interest journalism. It is also an important indication of solidarity with our brave client, Maria Ressa. We now call upon other States, the European Union and the United Nations to demonstrate their support for Ms Ressa by taking robust, practical steps which send a clear message to the authorities in the Philippines: the persecution of Ms Ressa must cease.”  

The international legal team led by Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC includes fellow barristers Can Yeginsu and Claire Overman.  The team is also working closely with Peter Lichtenbaum, Stephen Rademaker, Lisa Peets and Ambassador Daniel Feldman of Covington & Burling LLP, as well as Ms. Ressa’s counsel team in Manila.