An award-winning journalist critical of the Philippine president was convicted of libel and sentenced to jail Monday in a decision called a major blow to press freedom in an Asian bastion of democracy.
The Manila court found Maria Ressa, her online news site Rappler Inc. and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. guilty of libeling a wealthy businessman. The Rappler’s story on May 29, 2012, cited an unspecified intelligence report linking him to a murder, drug dealing, human trafficking and smuggling. The site’s lawyers disputed any malice and said the time limit for filing the libel complaint had passed.
“The decision for me is devastating because it says that Rappler is wrong,” Ressa said in a news conference after the decision was handed down. Her voice cracking, she appealed to journalists and Filipinos to continue fighting for their rights “and hold power to account.”
She was sentenced to up to six years but was not immediately taken into custody. Ressa posted bail for the case last year, and her lawyers said they will appeal the verdict.
Businessman Wilfredo Keng dismissed the allegations as baseless and false and said Rappler refused to take down the story online and publish his side of the story. He provided government certifications in court to show that he has no criminal record and sought 50 million pesos ($1.3 million Cdn) in damages, which he said he would donate if he won the case.
Rappler’s lawyers said the story was based on an intelligence report and that the one-year period under Philippine penal law when a libel complaint can be filed had ended when Keng filed a lawsuit in 2017, five years after the story was published online.
A cybercrime law, which Rappler allegedly violated, was also enacted in September 2012 or four months after the story written by Santos was published. Rappler’s lawyers said Philippine penal laws cannot be retroactively applied.
Rappler, however, acknowledged that it updated the story in February 2014 to correct a misspelled word but said it did not make any other changes. The Department of Justice, which brought the libel charges to court, contended that by updating the story, Rappler effectively republished the story online in 2014, an argument dismissed by the news site’s lawyers.
The Department of Justice cited another law to say that a complaint can be filed under the 2012 cybercrime law for up to 12 years, countering Rappler’s argument that Keng’s complaint was invalid due to being outside a one-year deadline for libel.
Faces 7 other criminal complaints
As Rappler’s chief executive officer, Ressa faces seven other criminal complaints in relation to legal issues hounding her news agency, including an allegation that it violated a constitutional ban on media agencies receiving foreign investment funds.
The moves against Ressa, who has worked for CNN and was one of Time magazine’s Persons of the Year in 2018, have been denounced by media watchdogs as a threat to press freedom. President Rodrigo Duterte’s government said the complaints were part of normal criminal procedures and were not a press freedom issue.
But Ressa has accused the government of abusing its power and of using the law as a weapon to muzzle dissent. Rappler is one of several local and international news agencies deemed critical of Duterte’s policies.
Duterte has openly lambasted journalists who write unfavourable stories about him, including about his anti-drug campaign that has left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead.
Duterte had already banned a Rappler reporter from his news briefings after a government corporate watchdog ruled that the news site violated a constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership of media when it received money from an international investment firm.
Rappler, founded in 2012, rejected the ruling.