• Melo Acuna

Rappler's Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, Jr. found guilty of cyber libel

Rappler’s Maria Ressa and former research convicted for cyber-libel

MANILA – A regional trial court in Manila found Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and a former researcher guilty of cyber libel this morning. The Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 concluded that Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, Jr. guilty and sentenced them to six months and one day to up to six years in prison.

They remain free after being allowed to post bail. The same court ordered Ressa and Santos “jointly and severally” to pay businessman and complainant Wilfredo Keng, P200,000 in moral damages and P200,000 in exemplary damages.

Rappler, as company, was found to have no liability in the complaint.

At a press conference, Ressa said her conviction of cyber libel is a “pivotal moment for the Philippines, and a pivotal moment not just for our democracy but for the idea of what a free press means.”

Rappler, in a statement said the court’s guilty verdict on Ressa and Santos said the decision was a “failure of justice and democracy” that “sets a dangerous precedent not only for journalists but for everyone online.”

During the midday press briefing, Presidential Spokesman Secretary Harry Roque said Maria Ressa was “barking at the wrong tree as then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte supported Alexander Adonis when he went to the UN Human Rights Committee.

“What more evidence is needed when President Duterte is one of the staunch supporters of freedom of expression and freedom of the press and during his career, he never sued any media practitioner for libel,” he said.

At the concluding portion of the regular briefing, Presidential Spokesperson Secretary Harry Roque said government critics will use the conviction against President Rodrigo Duterte.

He said the complaint was brought before the court as he called on everyone to respect the decision.

Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa decided on the case less than a year although the promulgation was supposed to be held last April.

“There is no curtailment of the right to freedom of speech and of the press,” the decision read.

It will be recalled government prosecutors indicted Ressa, Santos and Rappler for cyber libel in January 2019 from an article published by the social media entity that quoted an “intelligence report” which connected Keng, a businessman and the private complainant to human trafficking and drug smuggling.

The country’s anti-cybercrime law would not be enacted up to months after the article was published. However, prosecutors stood that a supposedly “republished” version of the story in February 2014 is covered by the law.

Rappler’s counsels from the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) said that the “multiple republication” principle does not apply to online media. They said the change made to the story in 2014 was just to correct a misspelling.

FLAG said Ressa and Santos had “no participation” in the alleged republishing. They said no evidence was manifested to indicate that Rappler, Inc., a corporate entity, could be made liable under the charge.

In the 37-page decision, the judge said the prosecution was able to establish the presence of all elements of cyber libel. The decision mentioned “actual malice” because the article was “republished with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

The court held complainant Keng did not immediately file his complaint against Rappler but tried to reach out to demand the news site to publish his side of the story. The court added Rappler did not publish a clarificatory article.

The court said the defendants did not verify the veracity of the reports and that neither Ressa nor Santos took the witness stand. The court further said Ressa who sits as Rappler’s “executive editor”, liable though the defense said she does not edit stories.

The court said it was a “clever ruse” for Rappler not to call Ressa as its “editor-in-chief” “to avoid liability of the officers of a news organization” for libel.

The decision cited Article 360 of the Revised Penal Code in relation to Republic Act 10175 because the law says Ressa, the editor and business manager is liable “as if” she was the author. The court also said the prescriptive period for cyber libel is 12 years which categorically gives everyone the right to file a libel case within 12 years. The defense counsels argued it only has a prescriptive period of one year.

In a statement sent to the media, businessman Wilfredo Keng said he has “been vindicated, at least, to the extent possible considering that the damage had already been done.”

“Even today, when the truth should have set me free, Rappler’s lies still resound after the bang of the gavel has faded away,” he added. He described himself as a private, hardworking businessman for over three decades and he knows how it is to be a poor businessman who tried his best to keep his name clean.

He said Maria Ressa “then dares to publicly connect my private suit to an alleged government attack on the Philippine Free Press.” He said he is a private citizen who filed a complaint. He added unlike Ms. Ressa, he took the witness stand and “testified in open court because I believe that I am telling the truth.”

“It is of public record: My counsel had pleaded and begged with Rappler to correct their false public accusations that I am a criminal, or at the very least, to publish my side” but “they refused.”

He said he was denied of his right to clear his name and so he sought justice and protection from the courts.

Meanwhile, various groups condemned the decision. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) expressed “extreme alarm” over the conviction of Rappler’s Maria Ressa and former Rappler reporter Renaldo Santos, Jr.

In a statement released immediately after the conviction, FOCAP described the decision as “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.”

The journalists’ group further vowed they “will press on with their courageous, fair, accurate and independent journalism.” The group added they have fought to stay independent since the dark martial law days and “we will fight on every time, threat after threat.” The group said they stand with Maria and Rey and Rappler and with all independent journalists.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL)’s President Atty. Edre Olalia said Maria Ressa’s and Reynaldo Santos, Jr.’s conviction comes at a time “with the searing attacks on freedom of speech and expression and other very basic rights, “this is scorchingly disappointing and bad news indeed.”

He said a number of the courts “missed the noble opportunity to hand out verdicts saying they will not be a party to the insanity and legal bullying.”

Atty. Olalia, in his statement after the promulgation said “the message is clear, the arrogant powers can squander time, resources and power on getting back at those asserting their rights and calling them out.” He said against this backdrop, people should not be cowed and muted and “with more reason should we fight back against both overt and thinly-veiled gagging.”

The Labor coalition Nagkaisa said the are “enraged and gravely concerned with the conviction.” In a statement, they coalition said the article subject of the charged not only involved a private individual allegedly defamed but matters of public concerns.”

“To expose them is not only the right of a journalist but also the right of the public to receive and evaluate,” the coalition said. It went on to say the decision failed to consider that criminal law has no retroactive effect.

“This decision can be perceived as just one of the multitude of examples of how laws are being weaponized to go after perceived political opponents. It is worth reiterating that the Philippines is one of the few countries with criminal libel laws, and that the United Nations already pushed for its decriminalization as it described it as ‘excessive,’” the Nagkaisa statement further said.

The Photojournalists Center of the Philippines said while trolls continue to threated legitimate media in the practice of their profession, “even to the point of branding media personalities as communists, we se that the long arm of the law would rather extend to those just doing their jobs.”

They said the article 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.” (Melo M. Acuña)

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa. (Rappler Photo)

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