One of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists, Maria Ressa, has been found guilty of cyber libel charges, a verdict that could lead to six years in prison and is likely to be viewed as a major set back for democratic rights in the country.
The verdict was issued by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa in a Manila court on Monday, where just a limited number of attendees were permitted as part of coronavirus prevention measures. Rappler, one of the country’s most influential news websites, its editor, Ressa, and former researcher and writer Reynaldo Santos Jr were accused of cyber libel in 2017.
The case, widely seen as an attempt to muzzle the media, followed a complaint by a businessman about a story written five years earlier about his alleged ties to a then-judge in the nation’s top court.
At a press conference after the verdict was announced, Ressa vowed to continue fighting. “Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we cant hold power to account, we cant do anything.”
Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, who leads a team of international lawyers representing Ressa alongside Amal Clooney, said the conviction was an “ugly stain on the Philippines’ reputation” and called on the international community to condemn verdict in the strongest possible terms.
“This is a very dark day for the rule of law and freedom of expression in the Philippines.”
It is just one of a series of legal charges against Ressa and Rappler, which has scrutinised the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, exposing extrajudicial killings and abuses. The various allegations made against Ressa, which mostly relate to claims about the news site’s finances, could lead to about 100 years in prison.
Ressa, who arrived at court on Monday wearing a mask, thanked her supporters on Twitter, writing: “We’ve survived four years of attacks because of the generosity and kindness of strangers. There is so much good.”
The arrest of Ressa in February 2019 on cyber libel charges was widely condemned by human rights groups, and prompted the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to warn that there appeared to be “a pattern of intimidation” of independent media in the Philippines. The charges made against Ressa have also been strongly criticised by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and described as “unjustified judicial proceedings” by the US Senate.
Duterte has denied the case is politically motivated and has dismissed Rappler as fake news.
The site has uncovered corruption and bot armies, and documented the brutal anti-drugs campaign waged under Duterte, which the UN recently warned had led to “widespread and systematic” extrajudicial killings. Government figures indicate at least 8,663 people have been killed in the crackdown; other estimates put the toll at triple that number.
Last week, Ressa described the trial as “an existential moment” for the country, where there are major concerns about shrinking democratic rights.
The cyber libel charge relates to a story published on the website in May 2012 that alleged ties between a Philippine businessman, Wilfredo D Keng, and a high court judge.
The case was first brought in 2017, and initially dismissed by the National Bureau of Investigation because it was outside the statute of limitations. But in 2018 the justice department allowed the case to proceed to trial, extending the liability period for such cases from one to 12 years.
Ressa and her legal counsel point out that the controversial cyber-libel law did not exist at the time of publication, and was in fact only enacted four months after the story was written. However, the justice department allowed the case to go ahead because the online article had been updated in February 2014 to correct a spelling error.
Gallagher said Ressa has been hit by “a succession of cases that seek to criminalise her reporting.”
In addition to Monday’s case, Ressa also faces another libel prosecution, two criminal cases alleging illegal foreign ownership in her companies, and investigations into her old tax returns, which Gallagher described as spurious. At one stage, Rappler’s operating licence was also revoked.
“Rappler has even been vilified in presidential press conferences and Maria herself has received horrific misogynistic rape and death threats online simply for doing her job,” added Gallagher, who drew parallels between the harrassment of Ressa and the intimidation faced by the the Maltese investigation journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia prior to her murdered in 2017.
Media freedom in the Philippines has deteriorated severely under Duterte, who stated in 2016: “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination”. The country now ranks 136th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index. Journalists have been targeted through judicial harassment, online campaigns waged by pro-Duterte troll armies, and violence. Local politicians, it warned, “can have reporters silenced with complete impunity”.
Just last month, the country’s biggest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was forced off air by a cease-and-desist order that was condemned as a brazen attempt to silence the press. Meanwhile a new anti-terrorism act has been recently passed by lawmakers, allowing warrantless arrests, weeks of detention without charge and other powers that rights groups fear could be used against government critics.