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Politics

Philippine authorities arrest Duterte critic Maria Ressa

Journalist's detention comes amid fears of deteriorating press freedom

Maria Ressa, CEO of online news service Rappler, has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte's government.    © AP

MANILA -- Philippine authorities on Wednesday arrested veteran journalist Maria Ressa on libel charges amid concerns over President Rodrigo Duterte's clampdown on news organizations critical of his administration.

The arrest comes after the Department of Justice early this month indicted Ressa, co-founder, CEO and executive editor of online news site Rappler, for libel over a 2012 news article that authorities deemed "clearly defamatory."

In a Twitter post, Rappler said Ressa will spend the night in the custody of the National Bureau of Investigation after a local night court judge refused her bail request.

Ressa said her arrest was a form of intimidation, carried out late in the day so that it would be difficult for her to post bail. "The timing is suspicious," she said.

She was defiant and told reporters she was prepared to spend the night in jail. "It does not stop us from holding the line."

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said Ressa's arrest is part of the government's efforts to silence the press.

"It is clear this is part of the administration's obsession to shut Rappler down and intimidate the rest of the independent Philippine media into toeing the lines," it said in a statement.

Duterte's spokesperson Salvador Panelo told ABS-CBN News Channel: "The case against Maria Ressa is not [a] violation of press freedom."

When asked to comment on the timing of the arrest, Panelo said the law only prohibits the issuance of arrest warrants at weekends.

Rappler, which has chronicled human rights violations under Duterte's brutal drug war and run critical reports about the Duterte administration, has fallen under increasing government pressure.

Last month, the Justice Department denied Ressa's plea to scrap tax evasion charges against her and Rappler.

Last year, the Philippines' Securities and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler's articles of incorporation, saying the news site violated the law banning foreign ownership in media companies when it received an investment from the U.S.-based Omidyar Network. Rappler has continued to operate despite the revocation.

The arrest comes a day after the country officially kicked off campaigning for elections to be held in May. Rappler is a local partner of Facebook, helping the social network fact check what people post.

Duterte has pressured media organizations perceived to be critical of his administration. Last year, the president said he would block the renewal of broadcaster ABS-CBN's legislative franchise, which expires in 2020. Owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, meanwhile, have announced the newspaper is being sold. The announcement came after Duterte threatened to open tax cases against the owners' other businesses.

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