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Panelo to Ressa: Focus on your legal defense

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa's arrest isn't an attack on freedom of expression, President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman said hours after National Bureau of Investigation agents arrested the longtime journalist at Rappler offices on Wednesday afternoon.

Presidential spokesman Secretary Salvador Panelo said Ressa should focus on her legal defense instead of accusing the administration of harassment.

"Freedom of expression has nothing to do with it," Panelo said in an interview on ANC.

Panelo added the allegations underwent review before the court issued the arrest warrant.

"The charge is facts-based and the DOJ [Department of Justice] prosecutors gave her all the opportunity to defend herself and it found out there is probable cause and even the court agrees with it," he said. 

The NBI on Wednesday arrested Ressa for cyber libel over an article published on the news website in 2012.

NBI agents served the arrest warrant issued by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 on Tuesday, at the Rappler headquarters in Pasig City.

The warrant stemmed from the cyber libel complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng against Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos for running a story—“CJ using SUVs of ‘controversial’ businessmen”—supposedly linking him to human trafficking and drug smuggling.

Panelo said the arrest warrant issued against Ressa had legal basis.

"The warrant of arrest from Branch 46 of the Manila Regional Trial Court was issued against Maria Ressa based on a finding of probable cause," he said.

Panelo underscored that, "This administration has always respected the judiciary on how it handles cases pending before its courts. We therefore refrain from interfering in its own present affairs."

He explained that the Rappler's take on the various programs and policies of the Duterte administration is not connected to her arrest.

"Ms. Ressa being a media practitioner and a high ranking officer of a media outfit critical of the President's programs and policies has nothing to do with the present circumstances she is currently in," said Panelo.

"Freedom of expression, as critics of this administration erroneously suggest, is absolutely unrelated with Ms. Ressa’s probable violation of the country's laws. Ms. Ressa should, in fact, welcome this as an opportunity to defend herself and be heard before the court of law," he added. — NB/BAP, GMA News