The libel trial of Maria Ressa, the editor and co-founder of Philippines news site Rappler, has officially begun on July 23.
The cyber libel charge she faces, over a story published in 2012, is just one of multiple other criminal charges that were levied against her in the last 18 months. Amnesty International has described these cases against Ressa and Rappler to be “a broader campaign to silence critics of the government.” Ressa faces years in prison if convicted.
Ressa was initially arrested in February over a story about a businessman’s ties with human trafficking and drugs. The cyber libel law was not implemented until months after the story was published. However, the Rappler team fixed a grammatical error in the piece in 2014 – a fact which the government’s lawyers are using to justify the law’s coverage.
“This case of cyber libel stretches the rule of law until it breaks,” Ressa said, speaking about the trial on Tuesday. “How this is decided will have an impact on all Filipinos who post on Facebook – and of course, the quality of journalism in the digital age in the Philippines.”
The trial has become high-profile and widely covered by the international press at a time when the media industry is fighting back against the rise of fake news and misinformation. Rights lawyer Amal Clooney joined Ressa’s legal team in July, catapulting the case to further media coverage.
Founded in 2011, Rappler has become one of the most influential news sources in the Philippines and has since drawn the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration over their coverage.
A month after being arrested on libel charges, Ressa was again detained on March 29 for alleged violation of the Philippine Anti-Dummy Law, which restricts media ownership to Filipinos. The government has also slapped Rappler with various tax-related violations.
According to Reporters without Borders, the Philippines ranks 134 out of 178 countries in their 2019 press freedom index.
Still, the commitment to remaining forthright has won Ressa international recognition, including being named one of TIME’s Person of the Year in 2018.
“I won’t be intimidated. We continue to do our jobs. The mission of journalism has never been as important as it is today in the Philippines,” Ressa told AFP.