While the government has hardly been shy about its intention to go after both dealers and users, hard data on the number of killings has often been tough to come by. One indispensable source of information, both for the international media and readers in the Philippines has been the upstart news site Rappler, which is now facing a reckoning with the government it has been a dogged check upon.
The formal accusations bring with them a potential 10-year prison term under Philippines tax law.
On Sunday evening, Ressa landed in Manila to fears that she could be arrested at the airport.
She was not arrested at the airport but confirmed to reporters in the arrival hall that a warrant of arrest had been issued. Ressa said she was “ready to post bail and do what our lawyers will advise.”
Ressa’s lawyer, Francis Lim, told CNN that Ressa left the airport with the rest of the Rappler team, adding that they would “voluntarily surrender Maria to the court and ask it to set her free by posting bail, which is a constitutionally guaranteed right under our legal system.”
In January, the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) temporarily revoked Rappler’s registration on the basis that it had violated the country’s constitution over foreign ownership rules.
Philippines officials claim Rappler and Ressa failed to declare about $3 million in 2015 on tax returns from an investment by the Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar.
Ressa, an award-winning journalist who previously served as a CNN bureau chief in Manila, has defended Rappler’s ownership structure as “100% Filipino,” and maintained the charges against her company are politically motivated.
“I’ve long run out of synonyms for the word ‘ridiculous.’ The basis of this case is that Rappler is classified as a dealer in securities. I am definitely not a stockbroker,” Ressa told CNN Thursday, after news of the charges broke.
Shawn Crispin, CPJ Southeast Asia representative, said the charges were a “blatant form of legal harassment and underline President Rodrigo Duterte’s desperate attempt to stifle its critical reporting on his government.”
Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the case sent “a chilling message to journalists and human rights activists (in the Philippines) that they will be targeted for exposing his murderous campaign.”
Duterte’s drug war
At least 5,000 people have been killed as a result of Duterte’s drug war, his landmark and most controversial policy. That figure is the official police count, however, and opposition lawmakers and rights groups estimate the true death toll could be in the tens of thousands.
Those killed have included children and innocents, as well as ordinary drug users and criminals executed extrajudicially.
“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch,” Duterte said in comments that were swiftly denounced by press groups. “Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.”
In the latest Press Freedom Index, the Philippines fell six places to 134th of 180 countries, with the report’s authors warning that the “dynamism of the media has … been checked by the emergence of a leader who wants to show he is all powerful.”
A dangerous job
Ressa has previously called out the effect of Facebook in enabling the spreading of disinformation and attacks against journalists online, saying this has become a key policy for the Duterte administration.
“In August of 2016, I gave that data to Facebook and I said, this is really alarming. These people are targeting anyone who attacks, who asks questions about the drug war. The drug war began in July of 2016. It’s targeting journalists. It’s targeting anyone who’s perceived to be critical of President Duterte. Those attacks are heinous. It brings out the worst of human nature.”
Ressa was overseas when the charges against Rappler were first announced, but she has vowed to return to the Philippines and fight them, even if that means doing so from a prison cell.
“Our democracy is in transition … the mission of journalism has never been needed as much as it is now, and we’ll continue doing these stories.”
CNN’s Joshua Berlinger and Euan McKirdy contributed reporting.