One of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists is facing up to six years in prison after she was found guilty of “cyber-libel” charges, a verdict condemned as setting “an extraordinarily damaging precedent” for press freedoms.
The ruling against Maria Ressa was issued by a court in Manila, where only a limited number of attendees were permitted as part of coronavirus prevention measures. The news website Rappler, its executive editor Ressa, and former researcher and writer Reynaldo Santos Jr were accused of cyber-libel over a story that alleged links between a businessman and a top judge.
Rappler was found to have no liability, but both Ressa and Santos were found guilty. They are entitled to post-conviction bail, and can appeal against the verdict. They have been ordered to pay P200,000 (US$3,978) in moral damages and another P200,000 in exemplary damages.
At a press conference after the hearing, Ressa vowed to continue fighting. “Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything,” she said.
“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?”
The mission of Rappler, Ressa added, would remain unchanged.
Amal Clooney, the Lebanese-British barrister who is leading a team of international lawyers representing Ressa, said the court had become “complicit in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse”.
“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.”
“We’re at the precipice. If we fall over we’re no longer a democracy.”
She added that she hoped the US would take action to protect Ressa, who holds both Philippine and American nationality.
Rappler has scrutinised the administration of the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, exposing bot armies and corruption and documenting his brutal anti-drugs campaign, which has led by some estimations to tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings.
In turn, the president has dismissed Rappler as peddling “fake news”, and his administration has instigated several cases against it.
In addition to the cyber-libel charges, Ressa also faces another libel prosecution, two criminal cases alleging illegal foreign ownership in her companies, and investigations into her old tax returns. The various allegations made against Ressa could lead to about 100 years in prison.
The legal cases have been widely condemned by human rights groups, and prompted the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to warn that there appeared to be “a pattern of intimidation” of media in the Philippines. The US Senate previously described the cyber-libel allegations as “unjustified judicial proceedings”.
Duterte has denied the case is politically motivated.
Peter Greste, director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, said the decision to convict Ressa and Santos set an “extraordinarily damaging precedent for press freedom”.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines added that the verdict “basically kills freedom of speech and of the press”.’The cyber-libel case relates to a story published on Rappler in 2012 that alleged ties between a Philippine businessman, Wilfredo D Keng, and a high court judge. The case was first brought in 2017, but was dismissed because it was outside the statute of limitations. The justice department later allowed the case to proceed to trial, extending the liability period for such claims from one to 12 years.
Ressa’s lawyers point out that the controversial cyber-libel law did not exist at the time of publication, and was in fact only enacted four months after the story was written. However, the justice department said the case could go ahead because the online article had been updated in February 2014 to correct a spelling error.
In total, Rappler and its officers and staff have faced at least 11 government investigations and court cases. Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a barrister who leads Ressa’s international team alongside Clooney, drew parallels between the harassment of Ressa and the intimidation faced by the the Maltese investigation journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia prior to her murder in 2017.
“Rappler has even been vilified in presidential press conferences and Maria herself has received horrific misogynistic rape and death threats online simply for doing her job,” she said.
Media freedom in the Philippines has deteriorated severely under Duterte, who stated in 2016: “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination.”
The country now ranks 136th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index. Journalists have been targeted through judicial harassment, online campaigns waged by pro-Duterte troll armies, and violence. Local politicians, it warned, “can have reporters silenced with complete impunity”.
Just last month, the country’s biggest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was forced off air by a cease-and-desist order that press freedom advocates condemned as a brazen attempt to silence the press. Meanwhile a new anti-terrorism act has been recently passed by lawmakers that allows warrantless arrests, weeks of detention without charge and other powers that rights groups fear could be used against government critics.