Press Freedom

'We Are Meant to Be a Cautionary Tale': The Chilling Implications of the Maria Ressa Verdict

Legal scholars, academics and journalists weigh in on the ruling that found journalist Maria Ressa guilty of cyber libel, and what it means for democracy, in the Philippines and everywhere.
16 June 2020, 1:51pm
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This file photo taken on December 3, 2018 shows Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor of online portal Rappler, showing the warrant of arrest order after posting bail at a court in Manila. Photo by Ted Aljibe courtesy of AFP

Immediately after being slapped with a prison sentence of up to six years on charges of cyber libel stemming from a story published by Rappler, the media outlet she helped found, veteran Filipina journalist Maria Ressa issued a warning to her fellow countrymen: "This is not just about Rappler, or about us. This is about you,” she said.

If those words struck some casual observers as a grandiose framing of a libel case, the same couldn’t be said for a phalanx of Philippines watchers and press freedom experts, who saw in Monday’s verdict a foreboding harbinger of what’s to come in the archipelago’s already-embattled media environment.

A Filipino court found Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos guilty of cyber libel over a 2012 article alleging improper links between a controversial businessman, Wilfredo Keng, and the country’s former chief justice, Renato Corona.

In bringing the suit, Keng took advantage of a technicality—that Rappler had updated its story to correct a typo in 2014—in order to initiate proceedings under the Philippines’ cybercrime law, which was passed months after Rappler’s story was first published.

Though only recently greeted with international scrutiny, regressive libel laws have always been the norm in the Philippines, with libel being classified as a criminal, rather than civil, offense. But because the laws have long been flawed doesn’t mean Ressa’s case was the norm, said Lisandro Claudio, an assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies at U.C. Berkeley.

“The laws being there doesn’t mean that presidents weaponize them to this extent,” Claudio, told VICE News, referring to hard-nosed Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who has made no secret of his dislike for Rappler’s aggressive brand of reporting.

And while Keng brought his case against Rappler some five years after the offending article was published, the suit was nonetheless permissible under new Department of Justice guidelines extending the statute of limitations for libel from one to 12 years.

Imelda Deinla, director of the Australian National University’s Philippines Project, said that the Philippines’ recent efforts to consolidate power under the executive, in this case Duterte, unchecked by other branches of government, had led to a weakening of institutions intended to safeguard the rule of law—namely, the judiciary.

“The judiciary is a paradox, because while it has gained a lot of power and become very influential under the 1987 Constitution, it has also become very vulnerable to political machinations. Its weakness, and vulnerability, is derived also from its institutional weakness,” Deinla told VICE News.

While Ressa’s profile may have made her a convenient target, the Philippines’ culture of red baiting, harassment, intimidation, and even killings of journalists—along with what Ressa herself described as the “legal acrobatics” evident in the verdict against her—would no doubt have a chilling effect. Experts agree this could affect not just news organizations, but ordinary citizens seeking to express themselves online.

“The chills are felt by asking a simple question: ‘Who's next?’" said Danilo Arao, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman’s journalism department, adding that the chill may already be felt in the country’s current lack of in-depth criticism of government policies and programs.

Indeed, the cyber libel law has already been used to arrest not just journalists, but private citizens, including a salesman who tweeted that the president was “stupid” and “crazy.”

Peter Greste, an Australian journalist and UNESCO chair of journalism and communication at the University of Queensland, understands better than most Ressa’s situation. Greste, and two of his then-colleagues at Al Jazeera, were handed stiff prison sentences by an Egyptian court in 2014 for reporting that was unflattering of the regime.

Ressa’s case, he said, was emblematic of a much wider struggle.

“It’s easily the most prominent example of official state harassment of the press in a country that has already had the press attacked on a whole host of levels—whether it’s economic, legal, or through internet trolls. What we’re seeing is, frankly, a very unsubtle attempt to shut down, silence any critical press who might be challenging President Duterte and his policies,” Greste said.

Ressa’s cyber libel case is only the tip of the iceberg, with the beleaguered executive facing a further seven charges—which she maintains are politically motivated—stemming from her association with Rappler, which Duterte has repeatedly singled out as an enemy of his administration. The president has banned Rappler reporters from covering official activities, denounced it as a “fake news outlet,” and in a characteristically salty flourish, accused it of “throwing trash and shit all along.”

And Rappler isn’t the only outlet to face the president’s ire. Just a month ago, ABS-CBN, the Philippines largest broadcaster, which had similarly drawn the ire of Duterte, was shut down by a cease-and-desist order following a sustained campaign by Duterte’s allies to block the renewal of its license. The president himself had long harbored a public grudge against the network, accusing it of accepting payment from his campaign to run political ads, but failing to air them.

The network insisted the snafu was an honest mistake, and attempted to return the money, but Duterte publicly rejected it.

He added that letting this kind of attack on freedom slide without a response, sends a signal to other governments that it is okay to experiment with similar restrictions of press freedom, all while press freedom globally is already backsliding.

Greste said that while there are undoubtedly factors unique to Ressa’s case, it also fits into a disturbing pattern “lawfare,” in which governments have increasingly used targeted legislation to shut down legitimate journalism.

Lyrissa Lidsky, Dean of the University of Missouri School of Law, told VICE News that it was “particularly alarming” to see countries threatening reporters and publishers with jail sentences for publishing allegedly defamatory statements, given how easily libel law can be used to silence critics. Lidsky added that most U.S. states have eliminated—either by repeal or constitutional review—once-common criminal libel laws.

While some say it is unlikely that Ressa will serve jail time—her case is still subject to appeal, and she remains out on bail—the attacks against her serve to deter other journalists from aggressively pursuing their work.

As a journalist himself, Greste acknowledged the tendency to see Ressa’s case as something that is only of concern to journalists, but insisted the real victims of diminishing press freedoms weren’t reporters, but the readers who depend on them.

“Huge amounts of information that has changed policies and moved the dial has come from good, legitimate journalism,” Greste said.

“It’s the public, the voters, people that the governments are supposed to be working for, that ultimately benefit from a free press,” Greste said.

"It’s about making sure that the system is being held up—that the people who are governing on behalf of voters are not abusing their authority or the human rights of those who voted them in the first place. That’s why we need good journalism, and that’s why these cases really matter.”

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.