Journalist Maria Ressa found guilty of “cyber libel”

William Arsn

Journalists Maria Ressa and Rey Santos Jr. on Monday were found guilty of cyber libel by the Manila Trial Court in the Philippines, according to Rappler, the news site founded by Ressa, where she served as CEO and executive editor. Ressa and Santos were hit with prison sentences of six months and one day to up to six years and ordered to pay 200,000 pesos in moral damages and another 200,000 pesos in exemplary damages.

Ressa and Santos posted bail and can remain free while they appeal the verdict.

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.”

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 been hit with 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.

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 baseless case has seen (Ressa) face draconian criminal charges for an article she did not write, under a law which did not even exist at the time of publication, and which is in clear violation of international standards,” said Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, co-leader of Maria Ressa’s international legal team alongside Amal Clooney. “Today’s verdict is of vital importance for Maria Ressa, but also for media freedom and the rule of law in the Philippines,” Gallagher told CBS News.

“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. “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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