By: Rommel F. Lopez

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa (photo from the PCOO)

Journalists and lawmakers slammed the guilty verdict handed down on Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and Rappler’s former researcher-reporter for Reynaldo Santos Jr. for cyber libel saying the decision is an attack to silence the press in the Philippines under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Ressa and Santos were found guilty of committing cyber libel by Manila Trial Court branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio – Montesa.  They were ordered to pay P200,000 in moral damages and P200,000 for exemplary damages.  The court allowed bail under the bond the two posted.  However, Rappler as a company was declared to have no liability.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP)said “This is a dark day not only for independent Philippine media but for all Filipinos. The verdict basically kills freedom of speech and of the press. But we will not be cowed. We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms.”

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said in a statement it is “extremely alarmed” over the conviction of Ressa and Santos.

“It’s a menacing blow to press freedom in the Philippines and adds a new weapon in a growing legal arsenal against constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in an Asian outpost of democracy. FOCAP journalists will press on with their courageous, fair, accurate and independent journalism. We have fought to stay independent since the dark Martial Law days. We will fight on every time, threat after threat. We stand with Maria and Rey. We stand with Rappler. We stand with all independent journalists,” it statement read.

The Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines Inc. said the conviction of Ressa and Santos ”for an ‘updated article,’ that was already beyond the prescriptive period for libel smacks of a targeted attack on media that has been publishing not only glossy stories on the administration.”

The Media and Entertainment Alliance called the guilty verdict a “muzzle on Philippines’ media”. editor and Journalism professor Danilo Arao said the guilty verdict against the Rappler CEO and former researcher ”should not be seen as an isolated case but as part of a systematic attack on media.”

“Ever since Duterte became President in July 2016, we saw the exacerbation of the culture of impunity as manifested by various forms of harassment and intimidation, including the killings of journalists,” he said.

Embattled media giant ABS-CBN also issued a statement after the guilty verdict saying we must all uphold press freedom and freedom of speech in the country.

Jailed senator and Duterte arch-critic Leila de Lima said the guilty verdict on Ressa and Santos “is but another demonstration of the Duterte government’s weaponization of law against those who dare speak truth to power.”

“Jailing me for over three years now is only one of the thousand sinister ways they are causing fear in the hearts of Filipinos who fight for what is just and right,” de Lima said who is jailed for drug-related charges.

She stressed that the administration “will not stop at going after critics and human rights defenders. To them, journalists too must be silenced. But we will not allow it,” before ending her statement with the hashtags #HoldTheLine #DefendPressFreedom #CourageON.

Meanwhile, fellow opposition senator Kiko Pangilinan said that if Ressa and Santos were acquitted, it would have been a “surprise” considering “the current political atmosphere of repression and authoritarianism”
“The silencing of critics and the attacks on the media have been going on for three years now. If they think this conviction and the effort to stifle dissent will silence those critical of this Administration then I say to them, No way!”

Pangilinan warned that unless Filipinos stand up, speak out and vigorously oppose the “tyranny in our midst, their conviction will not be the last.”

Risa Hontiveros said the administration has weaponized the law to go after its critics while even the country is facing a pandemic adding that the “on the free press and journalists are a danger to our democracy and to us Filipinos.”

She added that the year 2020 saw not just the pandemic but the shutdown of ABS-CBN and “the weaponization of the law against a journalist doing unbiased reporting on extrajudicial killings in the country.”

She believes Ressa’s conviction sends a chilling message to Duterte’s critics. “Kung kritiko ka, pwede kang ipasara at pwede kang patahimikin,” she said.

I urge everyone to speak out. Dumarami tayo. We are complicit if we are silent. Takot sila, kaya nila tayo pinapatahimik.”

Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate said the verdict “is a source of serious and grave concerns, especially in the context of the growing attacks now on the basic rights of our peoples.”

Considering the shutdown of ABS-CBN and the swift passage of the Anti-Terrorism Bill, Zarate said the verdict can be taken as “the tightening of civil liberties particularly that of press freedom and the freedom of expression.
“This is an ominous sign of where the Duterte admini is going to bring our country. Every freedom-loving Filipino should not take this gradual constriction & curtailment of our freedoms,but, should stand up, resist & fight the forces of darkness & repression #DefendPressFreedom,” he tweeted.

The cyber libel case filed against Ressa and Santos stemmed from the latter’s May 2012 article on the late former chief justice Renato Corona’s alleged links to businessmen, including Wilfredo Keng, who was named in the article. He disputed parts of the article that mentioned an intelligence report linking him to drugs and human trafficking.
Keng’s lawyer said they have evidence clearing the name of their client.

Even if the article was published in 2012, Keng filed a case only in 2017, beyond the one-year prescription period for libel under the Revised Penal Code.

Santos’ article was also published 4 months before the enactment of the Cybercrime Law in September 2012. A law’s effectivity is not retroactive.

However, Rappler belatedly spotted a typographical error on the article on February 19, 2014, and corrected “evation” and to “evasion.”

The Department of Justice said this is a “republication” of the article and thus makes the article covered by cybercrime law.