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Maria Ressa, the award-winning head of a Philippine online news site Rappler that has aggressively covered President Rodrigo Duterte's policies, shows an arrest form after being arrested by National Bureau of Investigation agents in a libel case on Feb. 13, 2019, in Manila, Philippines.The Associated Press

The head of a Philippine online news site that has aggressively reported on President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration was freed on bail Thursday after her arrest in a libel case.

National Bureau of Investigation agents served the warrant against Maria Ressa on Wednesday and escorted her from the Rappler Inc. office to NBI headquarters, where she stayed overnight in an office. The move against Ms. Ressa, who was one of Time magazine’s Persons of the Year last year, was denounced by Rappler and media watchdogs as a threat to freedom of speech. Mr. Duterte’s government said the arrest was a normal step in response to a criminal complaint.

“What we’re seeing is death by a thousand cuts of our democracy,” Ms. Ressa told reporters after posting bail in the Manila regional trial court that issued a warrant for her arrest.

She accused the government of abusing its power and of using the law as a weapon to muzzle dissent. “I’m appealing to you not to be silent … you have to express outrage.”

Mr. Duterte has openly lambasted journalists who write unfavourable stories about him, including about his anti-drug campaign that has left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead.

Ms. Ressa’s charges stem from a 2012 Rappler article that included allegations that a businessman was linked to illegal drugs, human trafficking and a murder case, citing an unspecified intelligence report. The story also said a car registered in his name had been used by the country’s chief justice, who was later ousted in an impeachment trial.

Wilfredo Keng denied the allegations in a statement and welcomed the justice department’s indictment of Ms. Ressa and a former Rappler researcher, Reynaldo Santos Jr., adding he was determined to see the legal battle through. He said he has no criminal record.

“Rappler, Ressa and Santos continue to hold themselves high above any accountability to provide credible and justifiable reason for why they continue to harass an ordinary private citizen and businessman despite having absolutely no basis for their claims,” Mr. Keng said in a statement.

“With one click of a button, they destroyed my reputation and endangered my life,” he said.

Mr. Santos has not commented on the allegations.

Amnesty International Philippines said Ms. Ressa’s arrest was based on a “trumped up libel charge.”

“This is brazenly politically motivated and consistent with the authorities’ threats and repeated targeting of Ressa and her team,” it said.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the arrest was “merely part of any criminal procedure.”

Mr. Duterte’s spokesman said the charge against Ms. Ressa was based on facts that she should simply answer and had “nothing to do” with press freedom.

Rappler is one of several local and international news agencies seen as critical of Mr. Duterte’s policies.

Mr. Duterte had already banned a Rappler reporter from his news briefings after a government watchdog found that the news site violated a constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership of media when it received money from an international investment firm. Rappler, founded in 2012, rejected the ruling.

In its selection of Ms. Ressa as a Person of the Year, Time magazine cited her and several other journalists as “guardians” in what it said was an effort to emphasize the importance of reporters’ work in an increasingly hostile world.

Ms. Ressa, who has worked with CNN, also last year received a Press Freedom award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Center for Journalists’ Knight International Journalism Award.

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