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A Crackdown On Journalism In The Philippines


The worldwide fight over press freedom focuses for now on the Philippines. Authorities have arrested Maria Ressa. She's co-founder of an independent news site called Rappler. It's a startup. It has reported critically on the family activities of President Rodrigo Duterte. And that includes his anti-drug operations that have killed thousands of people, including drug users and drug dealers and others. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from Manila.

Hi, Julie.


INSKEEP: What was the charge for putting this publisher under arrest?

MCCARTHY: Well, it was a case of cyber libel - online libeling. A local businessman here complained that he had been defamed by Rappler, which is the name of Maria Ressa's news outlet...


MCCARTHY: ...Because they linked him to illegal activities in an article that was published seven years ago and republished five years ago. And the businessman said he was very grateful to the justice department for bringing the case. But according to Rappler, the contents of that report were published earlier in another newspaper. But he only went after Ressa's website Rappler.

INSKEEP: OK. So five years ago, seven years ago, Duterte wasn't even president. And yet now the case is brought by Duterte's government. Are there people who are responding by saying that this is not really what the government's concern is about?

MCCARTHY: Well, that's exactly right. In fact, they're saying what it's really about and what it smacks of is silencing the critics of President Duterte. The Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International all moved in to say just that. The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines calls it persecution - this is a quote - "persecution by a bully government." So you get a sense where the lines are drawn here. Now Maria Ressa is a - is globally recognized. She's among the journalists who Time magazine named person of the year. And while this was the first time she was arrested, it was the sixth time Ressa has had to post bail. There are several government agencies, including the tax department, that have gone after her. Now, Ressa told me that the case has wide implications and that the message the government is trying to send couldn't be clearer. Here she is.

MARIA RESSA: Be quiet or you're next. You cannot be silent. Do not be silent because the rule of law is the only thing that keeps a democracy together. Press freedom is not just about journalists. Press freedom is the foundation of all the rights of all Filipinos to the truth. We're in a battle for the truth. And the first casualty is a number of people killed in the drug war. This is death by a thousand cuts of Philippine democracy.

MCCARTHY: Now, she's referring there to - Steve, to the president's anti-drug operations, which some - many human rights groups have called extrajudicial killings. And the death toll ranges from 5,000 - according to the government - upwards of 20,000. And Rappler's investigation of the drug war has put it at odds with President Duterte to say the least.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, is there a wider pattern of going after the press?

MCCARTHY: There is - he's threatened others. He's threatened to pull the license of other mainstream media. But, you know, it's important to remember to see what's happening in the Philippines as part of a larger trend. The press freedoms are under assault across Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Cambodia to the Philippines. Reporters are being jailed and harassed and killed.


MCCARTHY: And all of this is coming with a sense of impunity. And therefore, journalists are very worried about the heightened dangers in the Philippines.

INSKEEP: OK. Julie, thanks so much. That's NPR's Julie McCarthy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Julie McCarthy
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.