Duterte’s media critic hires US lobbyists for cases

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By Arjay L. Balinbin, Reporter

A US LAW firm has offered free lobby services to Maria Ressa, who heads Rappler, Inc. — a news website critical of President Rodrigo R. Duterte — to “build awareness and concern” about her criminal cases in the Philippines, according to twin filings in both Houses of the US Congress.

Lobbying disclosure reports show that Ms. Ressa, who is out on bail for a cyber-libel case, is using Covington & Burling partners Peter Lichtenbaum and Kurt Wimmer to act as her lobbyists in the US.

Her criminal cases should matter to the US because there is a “global erosion of freedom that is guaranteed in any democracy around the world,” the Filipino journalist yesterday said by telephone.

“It starts with the weaponization of the social media. When a journalist is under attack, democracy is under attack,” she said.

The Justice department in February indicted Ms. Ressa for cyber-libel based on a complaint by a businessman over an article published in 2012, months before the cyber-crime law was passed. The journalist has said the allegations were unfounded.

A month later, she got arrested again for allegedly violating the ban on foreign ownership in media.

Local and international media watchdogs and human rights groups have condemned her arrest. New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Mr. Duterte’s government “to cease and desist this campaign of intimidation aimed at silencing Rappler.”

Ms. Ressa, a former CNN investigative reporter, said Philippine authorities have managed to “twerk” the cases against her and Rappler. “So I am making sure that I am using all of the available options to us.”

Ms. Ressa, who is also facing tax evasion cases, said “lobbying is a legal and transparent practice in the United States.” “Yes they may lobby, but the main reason why Covington is working for Rappler is to protect our rights,” she said.

Lobbying is a highly regulated practice in the US, which requires the disclosure of activities seeking to influence the federal government.

Maria Ela L. Atienza, a political science professor from the University of the Philippines, noted that while Mr. Duterte and US President Donald Trump seem to like each other, this does not influence both countries’ foreign policies.

“Besides, there are a number of republicans in the US Senate who are also reluctant to support the Philippines under Duterte,” she added.

“Maria Ressa does have high-profile organizations and personalities as allies or supporters outside the country,” Ms. Atienza said. “They can lobby their governments to exert pressure on the Philippine government in terms of economic aid and military assistance.”

Ms. Ressa said the Covington partners will look at the news website’s options under international law. The US law firm is doing the lobbying work for free, the journalist said, adding that Mr. Lichtenbaum is a former classmate.

CNBC first reported that Ms. Ressa had hired the law firm “to take on President Duterte.”

Rappler, which Mr. Duterte has called a “fake news outlet,” is also appealing last year’s order by the Securities and Exchange Commission to close its operations for violating foreign-equity restrictions in mass media.

The Supreme Court last month ordered the government to comment on the petition by Rappler, which was banned from covering Mr. Duterte.

In a notice dated July 30, the court gave the Office of the President, Office of the Executive Secretary, Presidential Communications Operations Office, Media Accreditation Registration Office and Presidential Security Group 10 days to submit the pleading.

The ban stays in the absence of a court injunction.