Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa speaks to the media after pleading 'not guilty' to tax evasion charges at the Court of Tax Appeals in Quezon City, Philippines, April 3, 2019.
Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa speaks to the media after pleading 'not guilty' to tax evasion charges at the Court of Tax Appeals in Quezon City, Philippines, April 3, 2019.

MANILA - High-profile Philippine journalist Maria Ressa's libel trial opens Tuesday in a case that press freedom advocates see as government retaliation for her news site's critical reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte.

Ressa, who leads online outlet Rappler and was named a Time Magazine "Person of the Year" in 2018 for her journalism, is out on bail and faces years in prison if convicted.

This case is among a string of criminal charges that have hit Ressa and Rappler over the past year, prompting allegations that authorities are targeting her and her team for their work,

The news portal has reported extensively and often critically on Duterte's policies, including a deadly crackdown that rights groups say may be a crime against humanity.

"The message that the government is sending is very clear," Ressa told reporters in February as she posted bail after spending the night in jail over the libel case: "Be silent or you're next."

FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-LakasBayan (PDP-LABAN) meeting in Manila on May 11, 2019, ahead of Monday's the midterm elections.
FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-LakasBayan (PDP-LABAN) meeting in Manila, May 11, 2019.

The case that opens Tuesday centers on a Rappler report from 2012 about a businessman's alleged ties to a then-judge of the nation's top court.

Government investigators initially dismissed the businessman's 2017 complaint about the article, but state prosecutors later decided to file charges.

The legal foundation of the case is a controversial "cybercrime law" aimed at online offenses ranging from stalking to child pornography.

Ressa, 55, argues the law did not take effect until months after the story was published.

Government lawyers say it is effectively a new article since Rappler had updated it in 2014 to fix a typographical error.

While the plaintiff is a private citizen, like all criminal cases in the Philippines the suit is prosecuted by government lawyers.

Ressa and Rappler also face tax and corporate fraud cases.

Ressa's presence in court is not mandatory and she is not expected to attend the hearing, according to Rappler.  

The libel case has drawn international attention, with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressing concern over democratic rights.

Prominent rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who joined Ressa's legal team this month, said the case echoed a recurring theme in her work, where "journalists who expose abuses face arrest while those who commit the abuses do so with impunity".

Duterte, who denies being behind the case, has singled out Rappler for criticism, also banning it from covering his public events and forbidding government officials from talking to Rappler reporters.

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