MANILA, Oct 11 (The Straits Times/ANN): The Philippine government on Monday (Oct 11) finally acknowledged the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to journalist Maria Ressa, but insisted there is press freedom in the country and that the existential threat to her news organisation is due to its legal troubles, not a targeted effort by President Rodrigo Duterte to shut it down.
"Well, it's a victory for a Filipina, and we are very happy for that," Mr Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, told reporters.
But Roque, echoing a column by renowned Philippine writer F. Sionil Jose, insisted that "the Philippine press is alive and well, not because of Maria Ressa".
The Norwegian Nobel Committee on Friday awarded the Peace Prize to Ressa and journalist Dmitri Muratov of Russia for "their courageous fight for freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace".
"They are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions," the committee said.
Critics had earlier noted the Philippine government's reluctance to acknowledge Ressa's achievement.
"The deafening silence from the (government) speaks volumes of how they treated Maria Ressa in the past and how they were taken aback by this recognition. This is a personal rebuke of Duterte, who was insulting critics, especially women," Representative Carlos Zarate, of the party-list group Bayan Muna (Nation First), told Reuters.
Senator Leila de Lima, who has been in jail since 2016 on drug-related charges filed by the Justice Ministry, said in a statement last week that the Nobel Prize was a "slap in the face" of Duterte.
But Roque said on Monday: "Certainly not. It is not a slap on the government... because, as everyone knows, no one has even been censored in the Philippines."
He insisted that Ressa, co-founder of Rappler, was in legal trouble that had nothing to do with Mr Duterte, although the President had expressed displeasure at the way Rappler had been covering his government.
Ressa has been in Mr Duterte's crosshairs since Rappler began publishing stories critical of the government's policies, including a controversial drug war that has left thousands of mostly poor drug suspects dead in police raids and vigilante killings.
At least 10 arrest warrants have been issued against Ms Ressa. She is out on bail pending an appeal against a conviction last year in a cyber libel case, for which she faces up to six years in prison.
Two other cyber libel cases were dismissed earlier this year.
Duterte has called Rappler a "fake news outlet" over a story alleging corruption by one of his closest aides. His government has sought to shut down Rappler by filing cases questioning its ownership and accusing it of tax evasion.
Roque said: "She's a convicted felon for cyber libel, and she faces other cases in the Philippines... It is true that there are individuals who feel that Maria Ressa still has to clear her name before our courts."
He also insisted that Duterte did not pressure his allies in Congress into rejecting a proposed law that would have renewed the franchise of ABS-CBN, the country's largest television and cable network.
Duterte accused it of conniving with his political enemies to unseat him.
"You cannot blame Congress for not renewing the franchise of ABS-CBN because that is one of their powers. That is not an order emanating from the executive, nor is it a matter within the jurisdiction of the executive," said Roque.
Duterte also went after the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the largest newspaper that he likewise accused of being in cahoots with his rivals.
The Prieto family that owns the newspaper was forced to relinquish a sprawling, lucrative commercial property after Mr Duterte threatened to sue them over what he said was a lopsided land lease deal with the government. - The Straits Times/ANN