A libel trial against Maria Ressa, the editor of the Philippines-based news site Rappler, began Tuesday, the latest step in what is widely seen as an attempt from the Philippine government to intimidate journalists.
Ressa, the editor of influential news site Rappler, was arrested for cyber libel in February but later released on bail. She faces years in prison if convicted.
Rappler has been critical of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s government, and in particular of what Amnesty International has called its “murderous war on drugs” that possibly amount to crimes against humanity.
Ressa was among four journalists and one news organization named TIME 2018 Person of the Year for their “pursuit of greater truths” in the face of threats. She was also included on TIME’s 2019 list of the 100 most influential people. “My only crime is to be a journalist, to speak truth to power,” she said in her speech at the TIME 100 gala this year.
Ressa has already been indicted multiple times on libel and tax evasion by the government in what critics have called a targeted attempt to silence independent media. “The government hopes to intimidate us by syphoning both my personal time, our resources,” Ressa, who did not attend the hearing, told AFP.
“I won’t be intimidated. We continue to do our jobs. The mission of journalism has never been as important as it is today in the Philippines,” she added.
“It is clear that the government is manipulating the law to muzzle and intimidate one of its most credible media critics,” the Committee to Protect Journalists told CNN after her arrest in March.
The trial centers on a Rappler story published in 2012 about a businessman’s alleged links to illegal drugs and human trafficking.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright condemned the Philippine government’s act against Ressa. “Around the world, a new generation of authoritarian leaders is leading a concerted and intentional assault on truth, with serious consequences for journalists such as Maria who are committed to exposing corruption, documenting abuse and combatting misinformation,” she wrote in TIME earlier this year.
Reporters Without Borders ranked the Philippines at 134 out of 178 countries in its press freedom index this year.