November 24 ------ Nobel Prize winning journalist Maria Ressa ruled out on Monday going into exile over legal challenges she faces, and her lawyers urged the government of President Rodrigo Duterte to drop all charges against her. Ressa, the first Nobel laureate from the Philippines, shared the Peace Prize with Russian investigative journalist Dmitry Muratov, a move widely seen as intended as an endorsement of free speech rights under fire worldwide.
Ressa's news site, Rappler, had its license suspended and she has faced legal action for various reasons, motivated, supporters say, by her scrutiny of government policies, including a bloody war on drugs launched by Duterte. "Exile is not an option," Ressa told a streamed news conference with her legal team, adding that she felt a climate of violence and fear under Duterte's term was easing before 2022 elections. Free on bail as she appeals against a six-year prison sentence handed down last year for a libel conviction, Ressa is facing five tax evasion charges and a corporate case with the regulator.
"You don't know what freedom feels like until you almost lose it," Ressa said from the US city of Boston, where she is on an academic visit. The Philippines saw its ranking in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index drop two notches to 138 out of 180 countries, and the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines seventh in the world in its impunity index, which tracks deaths of media members whose killers go free. The government denies hounding media and says any problems organizations face are legal, not political. It says it believes in free speech.
Asked about Ressa's situation, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the Philippines valued democracy, liberty and human rights. "All the cases being faced by Maria Ressa in our country have gone through the appropriate legal processes, and Ressa has always been afforded, and will continue to be afforded, all the rights under our law to defend herself and prove her innocence in a fair and impartial trial," Guevarra told Reuters. Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer representing Ressa, told the news conference the government needed to decide whether to "double down on its persecution of this lone journalist" or show that it did not fear criticism and "once again is a beacon for liberty and democracy around the world". Ressa has requested government approval to travel to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10.