Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa stresses a point during a Senate committee hearing. Also in photo is Sen. Panfilo Lacson Also in photo is Sen Panfilo Lacson. (PRIB Photo by Cesar Tomambo)

By RJ Espartinez

Administration ally and neophyte senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa defended President Rodrigo Duterte from accusations that the administration manipulated the conviction of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and her former researcher for cyber libel.

“That is purely an independent decision handed down by a judicial court that originated from a complaint filed by a private individual so it is so foul on the part of the critics to keep on dragging the Duterte administration into this issue,” Dela Rosa stated.

Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. were sentenced to six months and one day to up to six years in jail after being found guilty of cyber libel due to an article connecting businessman and private complainant Wilfredo Keng to human trafficking and drug smuggling. Both Ressa and Santos posted bail.

Several rights groups expressed their support to Rappler and declared that the regional trial court’s decision is an assault against media freedom. Human Rights Watch stated that the attacks against Rappler is “widely seen as retaliation for the website’s critical reporting on Duterte’s war on drugs.”

Dela Rosa, who was the former chief of the Philippine National Police and the one who piloted Duterte’s brutal crackdown against illegal drugs, debunked the alleged link.

“Attack on press freedom? Tell it to the marines!” Dela Rosa said.

Meanwhile, minority senators also condemned the lower court’s decision and said that the law is being weaponized to silence journalists who are critical of the administration.

“This year alone, and while we’re responding to a global pandemic, we have witnessed the shutdown of a far-reaching media institution and the weaponization of the law against a journalist doing unbiased reporting on extrajudicial killings in the country,” Senator Risa Hontiveros said in a statement.

“Today’s conviction sends a chilling message to all: kung kritiko ka, pwede kang ipasara at pwede kang patahimikin,” she added.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Senator Panfilo Lacson, on the other hand, said the decision of the regional trial court can still be appealed in higher courts.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque shared that critics of the Duterte administration will likely benefit from Ressa’s conviction of cyber libel by using it to draw an image of President Duterte as an antagonist of press freedom.

“Ang paninindigan ng ating Pangulo ay ito po ay isang kaso na nalitis ng ating hukuman. Respetuhin natin ang desisyon ng hukuman,” Roque said.

“Meron pa naman pong pagkakataon si Maria Ressa na umapela. Habang po siya ay umaapela, hindi naman po siya makukulong. We wish her the best,” he added.