Updated at 11:56 a.m. ET on 2020-06-15
A Manila court on Monday convicted crusading Philippine journalist Maria Ressa of cyber libel, in what human rights groups called a devastating setback to press freedom in one of the relative few democracies in Asia.
The verdict stemmed from a 2017 complaint filed by local businessman Wilfredo Keng against Ressa, the CEO and executive editor of online Philippine news site Rappler, and Reynaldo Santos Jr., a former staff writer there, for what Keng alleged was a 2012 article that libeled him.
The Rappler report had said he owned a vehicle seen being used at the time by the then chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court. The report had also described Keng as having connections to the criminal underworld.
“Our press freedom has been rolled back,” Ressa told reporters after the court found her guilty of criminal libel. “We have to fight back and protect our constitutional rights.”
Ressa and Santos were each sentenced to serve six months to six years in prison, according to the ruling read out by the clerk of the court. They were not immediately jailed because the verdict, handed down by trial court Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, can be appealed in higher courts.
Rappler’s case has gained international attention because of Ressa’s high-profile stature. She was an award-winning reporter formerly with American network CNN who later became an executive of ABS-CBN Corp., the largest broadcaster in the Philippines, prior to branching out and establishing Rappler.
Together with ABS-CBN, Rappler has been reporting critically about the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, which has left thousands of suspected addicts and dealers dead.
The government last month ordered ABS-CBN’s main public channel to go off the air after its license expired and Congress had failed to move to authorize its renewal. A third news institution, the broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer, has also been threatened by President Duterte.
On Monday, a government spokesman appealed for the public to respect the court’s decision,
“He believes in free speech, and believes that anyone who works in government should not be onion skinned,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said, noting that the president had never filed a libel case against a journalist throughout his political career.
“They must face the criticisms of the public, especially if they come from the media,” Roque said.
Keng, in a statement, said he had been vindicated by Monday’s ruling although he claimed that the “damage had already been done.”
“Even today, when the truth should have set me free, Rappler’s lies still resound after the bang of the gravel has faded away,” he said.
‘Menacing blow to press freedom’
Rights and press freedom advocacy groups condemned the ruling, which was not entirely unexpected.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was “a devastating blow to media freedom in the Philippines.”
“The Rappler case will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia.
“The verdict against Maria Ressa highlights the ability of the Philippines’ abusive leader to manipulate the laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices whatever the ultimate cost to the country,” Robertson added.
Ressa’s colleagues at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) described what transpired as a “menacing blow to press freedom” at a time when the government was growing its “arsenal against constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties.”
“FOCAP journalists will press on with their courageous, fair, accurate and independent journalism,” said the association, which was formed in the 1970s as a counterweight to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
The ruling was a “sham” and should be quashed, said Nicholas Bequelin, the regional director of London-based global rights watchdog Amnesty International. It should also prompt the United Nations to look into Manila’s human rights situation, which is currently in a “free fall,” he said.
If the law can be used to go after people like Ressa, ordinary citizens must now worry especially as Duterte is expected to sign into law expanded anti-terror legislation, which gives broader powers to police forces to go after anyone opposing the government, rights groups warned.
In Bangkok, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand expressed its shock at the court ruling in Manila. Ressa was convicted “on questionable charges of violating the 2012 Cybercrime Law,” which, the FCCT noted, was enacted after the Rappler article was published.
“The dubious basis for this criminal conviction of a well-respected journalist in the Philippines, along with multiple other legal cases filed against Rappler under the Duterte government, amount to a serious attack on media freedom, which affects the work of all journalists in the country,” the FCCT said in a statement.
In New York, an American NGO that champions freedom for writers worldwide deplored Monday’s court ruling in the Philippines, one of Asia’s oldest democracies.
“This verdict is a disgraceful travesty of justice. It marks a sad day for democracy in the Philippines and for press freedom the world over,” Summer Lopez, the senior director of free expression programs at PEN America, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Philippine political opposition, Vice President Leni Robredo, dubbed the ruling a “chilling development.”
“We must remember that this is merely the latest instance of law being utilized to muzzle our free press,” she said. “Silencing, harassing, and weaponizing law against the media sends a clear message to every dissenting voice – keep quiet or you’re next.”
Ressa described her case as a “precautionary tale” to all journalists, saying the government wanted to send a message that this could happen to anyone who refused to toe its line.
Despite the chilling effect that the ruling would have on free speech and press freedom, Ressa encouraged journalists to keep demanding accountability from the government.
“We’re not enemies. Let us do our jobs,” Ressa pleaded.
Nonoy Espina in Bacolod, Philippines contributed to this report.