Veteran journalist Maria Ressa, the founder of Filipino independent news site Rappler, was found guilty on Monday of cyber libel charges by a Manila court. She faces up to six years in prison. Critics of the charges, which include prominent human rights and press freedom advocates, say charges filed against Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr, a former Rappler researcher and editor, demonstrate how the government is cracking down on media freedom and the independent press in the Philippines.
After Ressa was arrested in February 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement that said Ressa’s treatment “appears to be the latest element in a pattern of intimidation of a media outlet that has fiercely guarded its independence and its right to conduct in-depth investigations and to criticize the authorities.”
Both Ressa and the journalists of Rappler, which was founded in 2012, have written critically about the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, conducting investigations into corruption charges.
Ressa and Santos were arrested in 2019 on cyber libel security charges related to an article published in 2012 that reported on the alleged ties between Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona, who was impeached in 2011, and wealthy businessmen including Wilfredo Keng.
Keng filed the cyber libel complaint against the two journalists in 2017. The five year gap between the article’s publication and Keng’s complaint was much longer than the one-year prescriptive period for ordinary libel in the Philippines’ penal code, and in order to charge Ressa and Santos, the Department of Justice extended that period to 12 years for cyber libel. Rappler’s legal counsel argued this could impact their constitutionally protected rights.
In today’s verdict, issued by Manila Regional Trial Court Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, Rappler was found to have no liability, but Ressa and Santos were both found guilty and ordered to pay 200,000 pesos (about $3,978 U.S. dollars) in moral damages and another 200,000 pesos fine in exemplary damages. They are entitled to post-conviction bail and an appeal the verdict.
In a statement after the verdict, Amal Clooney, the head of Ressa’s legal defense team, said, “This conviction is an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines. I hope the appeals court will set the record straight in the case.”
Ressa said, “Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you hvae as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything. Are we going to lose freedom of the press? Will it be death by a thousand cuts, or are we going to hold the line so that we protect the rights that are enshrined in our constitution?”