Updated at 6 p.m. ET on 2020-06-16
The international community on Tuesday expressed disapproval of a Manila court’s conviction of two Philippine journalists on cyber-libel charges that could carry prison sentences of up to six years, and called on the government to uphold press freedom.
A U.N. envoy, the European Union and the United States all issued statements supporting Maria Ressa, the CEO and executive editor of the online Philippine news site Rappler, and Reynaldo Santos Jr., a former staff writer there.
“The conviction marks a new low in the Philippines’ protection of the freedom of expression and, in particular, the ability of an independent media to function in the country,” said David Kaye, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The verdict, which was handed down Monday, stemmed from a 2017 complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng who said he was libeled in a report written by Santos and published by the Philippine news portal in 2012.
“The law used to convict Ms. Ressa and the journalist who authored the article which led to their prosecution is plainly inconsistent with the Philippines’ obligations under international law. I urge the higher courts to reverse this conviction and correct this injustice,” Kaye said.
He noted that the Philippine government had targeted Ressa and her news site, Rappler, for years because of its reporting on the government. Among other issues, Rappler has reported critically about the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, which has left thousands of suspected addicts and dealers dead.
The EU, meanwhile, noted that the Philippines was a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines the right to free expression.
The conviction of Ressa and Santos “raises serious doubts over the respect for freedom of expression as well as for the rule of law in the Philippines,” the EU’s diplomatic service said in a statement.
“Freedom of opinion and expression, online and offline, are essential parts of any democracy worldwide. The European Union will always stand up for these fundamental rights,” the European bloc added.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department issued a one-sentence statement in support of Ressa, who holds dual Philippine and American citizenship, and Santos.
“The United States is concerned by the trial court’s verdict against journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos and calls for resolution of the case in a way that reinforces the U.S. and Philippines’ long-shared commitment to freedom of expression, including for members of the press,” the State Department said.
After Monday’s verdict, Keng said he had been vindicated although the damage was done. Rappler reported in 2012 that Keng owned a vehicle seen being used by the then chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, and described Keng as having connections to the criminal underworld.
‘An affront to the rule of law’
Ressa and Santos each were sentenced to serve six months to six years in prison, according to the ruling read out by the clerk of the court but were not jailed pending appeal to a higher court. They were both prosecuted and convicted under the 2012 Cybercrime Law, which was enacted after Rappler published the report that landed the news site into legal trouble.
Also weighing in on the verdict were attorneys Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who were part of the London-based legal team representing Ressa.
“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 that the appeals court will set the record straight in this case,” Clooney said in a statement. “And that the United States will take action to protect their citizen and the values of their Constitution.”
In Manila on Tuesday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Ressa could apply for probation to avoid being sent to jail, or she could appeal the verdict.
“When she appeals, she will lose the privilege of avoiding jail time. And if she loses her appeal, she will be jailed,” Roque said, according to the state-run Philippine News Agency.
Roque, a lawyer, blamed Ressa’s attorney, Theodore Te, for the verdict.
“Maria Ressa was convicted because they did not introduce evidence that would prove that there was no malice,” Roque said.
This version of the story clarifies that a U.N. envoy, not the U.N. itself, reacted to the verdict in the Philippines.