Washington has voiced concern over the cyber libel verdict on Rappler Executive Editor Maria Ressa and ex-researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr., which press freedom advocates claimed was part of the Duterte government’s crackdown on journalists and dissenters.

US State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said on Tuesday the United States was concerned over the Manila trial court’s verdict, “and calls for resolution of the case in a way that reinforces the U.S. and Philippines’ long shared commitment to freedom of expression, including for members of the press.”

Ressa and Santos were found guilty of cyber libel over a 2012 Rappler story that said a Chinese-Filipino businessman had lent one of his vehicles to the late chief justice Renato Corona, who was removed by an impeachment court from office that year.

While the law that penalizes cyber libel took effect later in 2012, the judge ruled that the story was “republished” in 2014 even if Rappler claimed only a typographical error was corrected. The court also ruled that cyber libel case could be pursued within 12 years after publication, unlike ordinary libel that has a one-year prescription.

Ressa and Santos, who are entitled to appeal the conviction, were sentenced to between six months and one day to six years in jail, and were ordered to pay P200,000 in moral damages and P200,000 in exemplary damages.

The private complainant, businessman Wilfredo Keng, said he was “vindicated” by the ruling and that the government had nothing to do with his complaint.

Keng’s case was pursued by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Department of Justice. The NBI revived the case just weeks after dropping it in 2018, and Ressa was arrested in 2019 but was allowed to post bail.

On Wednesday, Palace Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said ” freedom of the press and freedom of speech continue to remain vibrant and strong in the Philippines.”

This, he said, was “despite how some people choose to paint the independent and impartial decision of the court on the cyber libel case against Ms. Maria Ressa and Mr. Reynaldo Santos Jr. as a suppression of media freedom, when in reality, it is a case of accountability.”

Andanar’s statement was in reaction to the US State Department’s expression of concern.

He said: “The Duterte Administration has constantly been one with the United States and the international community towards upholding and valuing our long shared commitment to freedoms of the press and of speech, deeply conscious that having a plurality of voices — including critical ones — is an essential requirement for the continued functioning of any democratic country.”

“In this regard, there should be no cause for concern that the Philippine government is acting in any way to the contrary. However, one must not forget that these apparent exercisable rights and freedoms come with obligations and responsibilities, and also with due regard to other people’s rights and freedoms,” Andanar said. (PressONE.ph)