In what seems like another major blow to press freedom in the Philippines, Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa, along with former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. have been convicted of cyberlibel on Monday, June 15.
Issued by a court in the Philippine capital of Manila, the ruling accuses Ressa and Santos of cyberlibel over a story that alleged shady links between businessman Wilfredo Keng and a top judge.
Rappler itself was found to have no liability, but Ressa and Santos have supposedly been found guilty.
They’ve each been ordered to pay 200,000 Philippine pesos (US$3,994) in moral damages and an additional 200,000 pesos for exemplary damages.
Ressa remained resilient, stating in a press conference following the hearing that “freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything.”
The case stemmed from a 2012 story regarding the late former chief justice Renato Corona’s links to businessman Wilfredo Keng.
Part of the story quoted an intelligence report that linked Keng to instances of drug and human trafficking.
There are questions about the validity of the cybercrime law used to convict Ressa and Santos.
Their story was published in May of 2012, while the cybercrime law was only enacted into law in September of that same year – four months after the story’s publication.
“Are we going to lose freedom of the press? Will it be death by a thousand cuts, or are we going to hold the line so that we protect the rights that are enshrined in our constitution?” questioned Ressa at the post-hearing press conference.
But Ressa isn’t cowering down so easily. In fact, she’s being backed up by a team of international lawyers led by Amal Clooney – yes, George Clooney’s Lebanese-British barrister wife.
According to Clooney, the court had become “complicit in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse.”
How did they manage to convict Ressa and Santos if the law was enacted four months after the publication of the story?
The story was updated in 2014 to amend just one spelling error. This was enough for the court to warrant a case against the prolific journalist and researcher.
In the past, President Rodrigo Duterte has accused Rappler of peddling “fake news.”
But of course, Duterte has denied that the case is politically motivated.
This follows his recent spat with ABS-CBN, the largest media company in the Philippines. In that debacle of press censorship, the media network was forced to cease all television and radio operations after Congress’ refusal to renew its 25-year license.
Many critics suggest Duterte used a proxy in Congress to block the license renewal, especially considering the fact that the troubled President never had a good relationship with the media network, much like the case against Ressa and Santos.
But the current fate of Ressa and Santos hangs in the balance.
The Philippines ranks at 136 on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, sliding just above Palestine and right below Oman. To put things into perspective, even war-torn countries like Afghanistan (ranked at 122) have a better Press Freedom Index score.
The recent series of events also sets a disturbing precedent for all media organizations in the Philippines.
What do you feel about the convictions of Ressa and Santos?
Cover image sourced from Al Jazeera.