MANILA -- The libel case filed against Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa is not an isolated one, the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS) said, insisting that press freedom is “alive and well” in the Philippines.

PTFoMs also belied the claim that Ressa’s arrest is an “attack on press freedom”, noting that other journalists have also faced or are facing libel charges for articles they have written.

“The Task Force has always stood by the observation that the mere performance of duties of journalists already exposes them to serious risks such as threats, actual physical attack, indictment for libel and other criminal offenses, etc.,” the PTFoMS said in a statement on Sunday night.

The PTFoMS noted that other journalists have also been arrested, posted bail, and been tried before the courts while others do not even get the opportunity to avail of due process but are just physically assaulted or murdered for their hard-hitting news.

It said the task force has been carrying out measures to protect journalists from killings and harassment, so it is unfair to claim that Ressa’s libel case is an attack on press freedom.

“The impulsive conclusion that the non-exemption of Ms. Ressa from the judicial process constitutes a blanket attack on press freedom in the Philippines is a blatant disregard for the earnest efforts of the very stakeholders to come up with programs aimed at safeguarding it,” it added.

The PTFoMS said it has facilitated discussions among its media partners and resource persons for a consolidated position on the decriminalization of libel.

It is set to launch a project with UNESCO for strengthening journalists’ safety in the Philippines, in collaboration with various media organizations.

Available remedies

The PTFoMS said it is the right of businessman Wilfredo Keng to file charges against Ressa over a controversial news article published by Rappler in 2012 and updated and republished by in 2014.

Keng filed a cyber libel complaint against Ressa in October 2017 after he was named as the owner of a sports utility vehicle used by the late Chief Justice Renato Corona in the article titled, "CJ using SUVs of 'controversial' businessmen”.

“An adversarial proceeding always involves parties on opposing sides. In this particular case, we must bear in mind that while Ms. Ressa and Mr. Reynaldo Santos Jr., the writer of the article in question, stand accused for libel on one hand, there is a private complainant (Wilfredo Keng) on the other, who felt aggrieved by the publication,” the PTFoMs said.

“As a corollary, this resort to the judicial process is well within Mr. Keng’s right to prosecute his claim and in fact also serves as the perfect opportunity for Ms. Ressa and Mr. Santos to exercise their right to present evidence that will exonerate them from the charges when the case proceeds to trial,” it added.

The PTFoMS, meanwhile, urged Ressa to avail of remedies that they can exhaust to protect their rights, noting that she is not lacking in legal advice from her formidable team of lawyers.

On Feb. 13, 2019, Ressa was taken into custody by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) following the issuance of a warrant for her arrest on charges of libel punishable under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

She was released after posting a PHP100,000 bail the following day.

In October 2016, the PTFoMS was created through Administration Order No. 01 signed by President Rodrigo R. Duterte to address media killings and harassments.

It is headed by the Department of Justice, co-chaired by the Presidential Communications Operations Office, with the Department of National Defense, Department of the Interior and Local Government, Office of the Solicitor General, Presidential Human Rights Committee, Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine National Police and National Bureau of Investigation, as members. (PNA)