Journalist Maria Ressa convicted of “cyber libel” in Philippines

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Internationally acclaimed Filipino journalist Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr., a former staffer at Rappler, the online news service founded by Ressa, where she serves as CEO and executive editor, were found guilty of cyber libel by a Manila trial court in the Philippines on Monday. Ressa and Santos were […]

Internationally acclaimed Filipino journalist Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr., a former staffer at Rappler, the online news service founded by Ressa, where she serves as CEO and executive editor, were found guilty of cyber libel by a Manila trial court in the Philippines on Monday. Ressa and Santos were hit with prison sentences of six months and one day to up to six years and ordered to pay around $8,000 in moral and exemplary damages.

Ted Te, one of Ressa’s attorneys in the Philippines, said they will appeal the cyber libel ruling. Ressa and Santos posted bail and can remain free while they appeal the verdict.

“It is a blow, but it is also not unexpected,” said a defiant Ressa as she emerged from the courtroom.  

Ressa founded the online news site Rappler in 2012 and has received international acclaim for her reporting in the face of personal and legal threats. Rappler the company was found to not be liable in the lawsuit.

Ressa and human rights groups believe the government of Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial president of the Philippines, has targeted Rappler and Ressa in retaliation for its critical reporting, including its coverage of Duterte’s deadly “war on drugs,” which has led to the violent killing of thousands of Filipinos.

The Philippines ranks 136th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index put together by Reporters Without Borders, whose analysts say journalists there face threats of violence, legal charges, and online harassment. In May, the country’s biggest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was forced off the air.

“If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything,” Ressa said at a press conference after the verdict was handed down. “If we can’t do our jobs, then your rights will be lost.”

Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, who led Ressa’s legal defense team, both condemned the verdict.

“Today a court in the Philippines became complicit in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse,” Clooney said in a statement. “This conviction is an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines.”

“Maria Ressa’s conviction on baseless charges, for an article she did not write, under a draconian law which did not exist when the article was published, is an ugly stain on the Philippines’ reputation,” Ghallagher added. “The international community must condemn this grave attack on independent journalism and media freedom in the strongest terms.”  

In a CBSN Originals documentary, “Fake news, real consequences,” Ressa described tactics by Duterte’s supporters to use social media platforms to spread lies and silence critics. 

“To think that we would buckle, that we would throw away a lifetime’s work of journalism because we’re afraid? I think they don’t know what real journalists are,” Ressa said Sunday in an interview on Manila-based online media platform, “Now You Know,” hosted by Barnaby Lo, a producer for CBS News.

Since 2018, Rappler and Ressa have faced at least 8 charges by different government agencies, including for tax evasion and libel. At one point, Ressa said she had to post bail six times in a period of less than two months.

“It’s just the bad luck of the Duterte administration that they chose a journalist who’s been around for a long time,” Ressa said. “I know who I am, I know why I do what I do. I know the standards and ethics of journalism. You can’t really bully me into changing that.” 

In 2012, Rappler published a story that raised questions about a former chief justice in the Philippines — who was going through an impeachment trial at the time — using a luxury vehicle owned by businessman Wilfredo Keng.

Over five years later, in October 2017, Keng made a complaint to the cyber crime unit of the Phillipine’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). In March 2018, the unit recommended that Rappler be prosecuted for “cyber libel,” a crime that carries a possible prison sentence of up to seven years, and in February 2019, warrants were issued for the arrest of Ressa and former Rappler writer/researcher, Renaldo Santos Jr.

The judge, Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, ruled that there was no substantive effort on the part of Rappler journalists to verify claims in an intelligence report cited in the article that implicated Keng in criminal activity, and air Keng’s side.

She said Ressa and Santos cannot hide under the shield of press freedom.

Ressa argued that the cyber libel law had not existed at the time that the article was written in 2012 — and that it could not be applied retroactively. However, prosecutors said that the fact that edits were made to the article in 2014 meant the law could apply. Rappler says the edits were not substantive.

“Essentially, because someone at Rappler changed a typo, fixed a misspelling, we are now sentenced to jail,” Ressa said at Monday’s press conference.

“This is politically motivated, it is meant to harass us, it is meant to light the online attacks, and pound us into silence,” Ressa said prior to the verdict being announced. “We (will) keep doing our jobs, and I’m hoping that by doing that, by holding the line, that our counterparts in government will realize that we are actually working for the same thing, which is to make a better society, to find answers to the same questions.” 

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