MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson, Harry Roque, congratulated journalist Maria Ressa on winning this year’s Nobel Peace Prize on Monday, which, he said, proves press freedom is alive and well in the country.
Ressa, a co-founder of Rappler, a digital news outlet for investigative journalism known for its tough scrutiny of Duterte, was awarded the prize together with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov on Friday for “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.”
The prize’s committee cited Ressa’s work and criticism of the Duterte regime’s “controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign,” which since 2016 has led to the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos, mostly urban poor, according to Human Rights Watch estimates.
“We congratulate Maria Ressa for being the first Filipino to win the Nobel Peace Prize,” Roque said in a press briefing. “As of now, press freedom is alive and the proof is the Nobel Prize given to Maria Ressa.”
He added a barb, however, suggesting that in the Philippines Ressa was a convicted felon and had questions to answer over her past conduct.
In June last year, Ressa was found guilty of cyber libel by a Manila court in a case that was seen as a test of the country’s press freedom. Ressa denied the charges.
She is also facing a series of other cases, which she says are politically motivated.
“It is true that there are individuals who feel that Maria Ressa still has to clear her name before our courts, as in fact, she’s a convicted felon for cyber libel in the Philippines, and she faces other cases in the Philippines,” Roque said. “That’s for the courts to decide.”
Roque also referred to a comment made by National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose — one of the country’s most widely read authors — who, after Ressa’s win, said “the Philippine press is alive and well not because of Maria Ressa,” and added that no writers were in jail in the country.
“Let’s just say Malacañang agrees with our national artist,” Roque said. “Everyone knows, no one has ever been censored in the Philippines.”
Various other politicians, meanwhile, lauded Ressa for her win, with some suggesting she should be officially recognized by the Philippines.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said Ressa “automatically qualified to receive the Senate Medal of Excellence, ”the highest award given by the chamber.
“Ressa deserves our congratulations for being one of the awardees of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize — the first Filipino to have this distinction,” Opposition Senator Panfilo Lacson said.
“But more than the prestige that comes with the award, is the responsibility of continuing to uphold the freedom of expression — the reason for the award. It is hoped that the Nobel Peace Prize will further inspire the responsible practice of journalism for the good of all.”