In yet another blow to press freedom in the Philippines, veteran journalist Maria Ressa was found guilty of cyber libel charges amid concerns of diminishing democratic freedoms in the country.
On Monday, June 15, just three days after Philippine Independence Day, Ressa, Executive Editor and CEO of Philippine news organisation Rappler, along with co-accused Reynaldo Santos, a former Rappler researcher and writer, were convicted.
The Manila Regional Trial Court sentenced the two journalists to six months and one day to up to six years in jail, and ordered them to pay P400,000 or about $8,000 each in moral damages and exemplary damages. Ressa and Santos posted bail and plan to appeal the decision.
The case garnered global attention, as human rights observers raised concerns of attacks on press freedom and democracy under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. The conviction comes just weeks after the country’s largest media broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was shut down by the government. Ressa was among TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year awardees, when it honoured journalists in 2018.
"To the Filipinos watching, this is not just about Rappler or about us. This is about you. Because freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen," Ressa said after the decision, in an emotional address to the press.
Ressa said it was important to keep vigilant, citing other questionable policies of the government, particularly an anti-terror bill that zoomed through Congress last week in record time and is awaiting Duterte’s signature for it to become law. The bill is seen as a repression tool and may be used to silence government critics by tagging them as terrorists.
"We are at the precipice. If we fall over, we're no longer a democracy,” Ressa said. “This kind of grey area… if we go too far, we get slammed. Let's not play the game. Are we a democracy or not?"
The conviction of Ressa follows a string of attacks against Filipino journalists and years of threats against Rappler by the president. Duterte has accused the news site of spreading fake news for its critical reporting against the administration, including Duterte's brutal drug war that has killed thousands. The court however, declared Rappler to have no liability in this particular case.
Ressa and Rappler are facing seven other charges spanning from tax evasion to foreign ownership – which Rappler and press advocates have decried as politically motivated. The website’s presidential reporter has been banned from covering the president. Duterte has even endorsed killing “corrupt” journalists.
The cyber libel case was filed by Wilfredo Keng, a businessman who was the subject of a May 2012 article. The article reported on Keng’s alleged ties to former chief justice Renato Corona, and cited an intelligence report about Keng’s links to drugs and human trafficking.
The court decision, penned by Presiding Judge Rainelda H. Estacio-Montesa, said Rappler failed to adequately prove the allegations against Keng or publish his side. It also denied that the decision was politically motivated.
"There is no curtailment of the right to freedom of speech and of the press. Each person, journalist or not has that constitutionality guaranteed right to freely express, write and make known his opinion," it said. "But with the highest ideals in mind what society expects is a responsible free press. It is in acting responsibly that freedom is given its true meaning."
But Rappler has argued that the article in question was published in May 2012, even before the cybercrime law was enacted in September 2012 and that the law was applied retroactively.
In a statement by Rappler following the decision, the media company argues that the case was "built on flimsy ground: a corrected typographical error." In 2014, the article was updated to correct a typo, which the court argued, was a republication of the article.
"They used it as basis to make an incredible claim about 'republication' of an article that was, in truth, published before the cybercrime law was enacted," Rappler's statement said. "This creative reinterpretation and twisting of the law became grounds to prosecute this case, filed 5 long years after the publication of a story."
The statement also pointed out that the decision sets a dangerous precedent for journalists, adding that the trial was completed "in only 8 months, possibly the fastest libel trial in recent history."
"Today is a day of grief, mourning, and rage… This decision is historic. It was handed down during a pandemic, with community quarantine restrictions still in place," the statement added.
Ressa has vowed to challenge all other cases against her.
“Don’t be afraid. If you don’t use your rights, you will lose them,” she said. “We shouldn’t be voluntarily giving up our rights. We will fight.”
Disclosure : Before joining VICE, Natashya Gutierrez was a part of Rappler's founding team, where she was a reporter and editor for 7 years.