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Philippine journalist Maria Ressa. Photo: AFP

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa found guilty of cyber libel

  • Ressa and her news site Rappler have been the target of legal action and probes after publishing stories critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policies
  • Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who is part of Ressa’s legal team, said the conviction was ‘a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines’
Philippine journalist Maria Ressa was on Monday convicted of libel in a case she and watchdogs say is aimed at silencing critics of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa sentenced Ressa, 56, and her co-accused, former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jnr, to a period of imprisonment up to six years and no less than six months and one day.

In handing down the verdict, the judge said the exercise of a freedom “should and must be used with due regard to the freedom of others”.

Montesa allowed Ressa and Santos to post bail, and their camp said they would appeal the verdict.

Ressa and her news site Rappler have been the target of legal action and probes after publishing stories critical of Duterte’s policies, including his drug war that has killed thousands.

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, one of Duterte’s fiercest critics, remains defiant

Ressa said the verdict was a blow to press freedom and democracy, but not unexpected and called on journalists and the public to continue the fight: “We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. Don’t be afraid,” she said.

“We are going to stand up against any kind of attacks against press freedom,” a defiant Ressa told journalists after the conviction in Manila.

“I began as a reporter in 1986 and I have worked in so many countries around the world, I have been shot at and threatened but never this kind of death by a thousand cuts,” she said.

“We’re at the precipice, if we fall over we’re no longer a democracy.”

The verdict in Manila decided a trial that stems from businessman Wilfredo Keng’s 2017 complaint over a Rappler story five years earlier about his alleged ties to a then-judge on the nation’s top court and his links to illegal activities, citing information in an intelligence report from an unspecified agency.

Maria Ressa gestures to the media outside the court in Manila. Photo: EPA-EFE

In his complaint, Keng said the story included “malicious imputations of crimes, vices and defects”.

Ressa, who Time magazine named as a Person of the Year in 2018, did not write the article and government investigators initially dismissed the businessman’s allegation. But state prosecutors later filed charges against her and Santos, the former Rappler journalist who wrote it, under a controversial cybercrime statute aimed at online offences such as stalking and child pornography.

The law they are accused of violating took effect in September 2012, months after the article was published. But prosecutors say Rappler’s typographical correction to the story in 2014 to change “evation” to “evasion” was a substantial modification and the article was thus covered by the law.

The court ruling said Rappler showed “actual malice” for not publishing at least a clarification after Keng complained.

“I’ve been the cautionary tale: be quiet or you’re next … that’s part of the reason why I have been targeted,” Ressa, a co-founder of Rappler and a former CNN journalist, said last week. “It’s a chilling effect … not just to me and to Rappler, but to journalists and to anyone who asks critical questions.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: Reuters

Duterte’s government has said the case is not politically motivated and that authorities must enforce the law, even against journalists.

Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said the president backs free speech and has never filed a libel case against a journalist while in government.

“The president supports freedom of expression and freedom of the press. I hope that’s clear,” Roque said.

But rights groups and press advocates say the libel charge along with a series of tax cases against Rappler and a government move to strip the news site of its licence amount to state harassment.

“If Maria is convicted and locked up for doing her work, the message to other journalists and independent voices is clear: Keep quiet, or you’ll be next,” human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who is part of Ressa’s legal team, wrote in The Washington Post on Friday.

On Monday, Clooney called the conviction “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. And that the United States will take action to protect their citizen and the values of their Constitution,” Clooney said in a statement.

Rappler’s Maria Ressa is seen arriving at the Manila Regional Trial Court on Monday. Photo: AP
Amnesty International said the “attacks” against Rappler were part of a wider government crackdown on media freedom in the Philippines.

“Ressa … and the Rappler team are being singled out for their critical reporting of the Duterte administration,” Amnesty International said. “With this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall.”

The Philippines has fallen in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index to 136 out of 180 nations and territories.

We backed Maria Ressa’s Rappler. If you believe in the Philippines, you should too

Human Rights Watch said the case “will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom”.

Ressa’s verdict came just over a month after government regulators forced off the air ABS-CBN, the nation’s top broadcaster, after years of threats by Duterte to shut down the network.

He is soon expected to sign an anti-terrorism law his opponents fear could target them, but which he says is needed to fight extremism.

Both Rappler and ABS-CBN have reported extensively on Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign in which police have gunned down alleged dealers and users in operations condemned by rights groups.

Some of the crackdown’s highest-profile critics have wound up behind bars, including Senator Leila De Lima, who is serving three years in jail on drug charges she insists were fabricated to silence her.

In 2018 Duterte denounced Rappler as a “fake news outlet” and subsequently banned Ressa and her colleagues from his public engagements.

Additional reporting by Reuters and dpa

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Libel verdict due for Journalist critical of Duterte is convicted of libel