It would seem as if the dispute between the current administration and Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa has been long-standing. Ressa, a vocal critic of the administration, has even been arrested several times due to a myriad of reasons including questions on foreign ownership of Rappler. However, it seems as if today, June 15, there has been a (temporary) stop to their dispute.
Just a few hours ago, the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 found the veteran journalist and Reynaldo Santos, Jr., a former Rappler writer-researcher, guilty of cyber libel. The cyber libel case was filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng in regard to a Rappler article written by Santos in 2012 where he said that the businessman lent his sports utility vehicle (SUV) to then-Chief Justice Renato Corona.
The report also said that according to an intelligence report, Keng is being monitored by the National Security Council due to allegations of involvement in drug smuggling and human trafficking. (Read: Kobe Paras Slams Anti-Terror Bill, Gets Support From Other Student-Athletes)
Keng said that these allegations were untrue and filed the said case against the two journalists in 2017—five years after the article in question was initially released, and three years after it was updated due to a typographical error. According to Albay First District Representative Edcel Lagman, since cyber libel is “libel defined under the Revised Penal Code committed through a computer system, prescription of cyber libel is one year as provided for in Article 90 of the RPC.”
However, the cybercrime law has no clear-cut prescription period for cyber libel, which is why the Department of Justice (DOJ) found a ‘loophole’ of sorts—Republic Act 3326. This 1961 law allows the prescription period of cyber libel to be extended to 12 years, given that the cybercrime law is a special law. (Read: Why are people so keen on protecting media rights and freedom?)
Questions also arose since the law was only passed four months after the article was published, which meant an article published before a bill was made into law cannot violate something that wasn’t there in the first place. However, DOJ defended it by saying that the updates on the article (due to typographical error) in 2014, made the law applicable to the case.
A Threat to Freedom of Speech
After the decision was made, many were quick to slam the court ruling, saying that it is dangerous to the Philippines’s democracy and the Filipinos’ freedom of speech. Rappler Inc., which was excluded from the cyber libel case as the court said it had no corporate liability, issued a statement right after the conviction of its CEO and former researcher-writer.
“They [Ressa and Santos, Jr.] were sentenced to jail for 6 months and 1 day up to 6 years, and allowed bail. She [Manila RTC Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa] completed the trial in only 8 months, possibly the fastest libel trial in recent history,” the statement said. “This ruling, coupled with the cybercrime law, has made the space for a free press, free speech, and free expression even tighter and narrower…The decision today marks not the rule of law, but the rule of law twisted to suit the interests of those in power who connive to satisfy their mutually beneficial personal and political agenda.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also spoke up about the court ruling saying that it was as clear as day that the administration will do anything to silence critics and anyone against them. “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,” said Phil Robertson, HRW deputy Asia director.
The Fight Continues
During their post-conviction press conference, Maria Ressa said, “I’ve been shot at and threatened but never like this, death by a thousand cuts. We have to fight back and protect our rights…I do know that as of two years ago, I had posted more in bail and bonds than Imelda Marcos who’s been convicted in four different countries.” They said that they will be appealing the court ruling with the Court of Appeals (CA), and if need be, to the Supreme Court (SC).
Many have been and are still criticizing the administration for going lengths to silence vocal critics and curtail the free speech of those who are speaking up against them or their programs. Just recently, Filipinos all over the world slammed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 which could red-tag and label people who speak up as “terrorists.” The bill, if passed into law, will also restrict people from assembling or joining rallies—clearly violating people’s right to assemble.