Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and her co-accused, a former researcher of the agency, were convicted of cyber libel charges in the first court decision on a string of criminal cases filed against the online news site and its leader, which press freedom advocates branded as a way to silence critics of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 found Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. guilty of cyber libel on Monday and sentenced them to six months and one day to up to six years in jail.
The two remain free after being granted post-conviction bail, in a high-profile verdict handed down during the time the Duterte administration has been targeting those critical of the government.
Rappler as a company was declared to have no liability, the court ruled.
Rappler and Ressa also face separate charges for alleged tax evasion and violation of the anti-dummy law, cases that the veteran journalist has called acts of harassment against the news site.
The Manila RTC Branch 46 allowed bail under the same bond. The court ordered to pay P200,000 in moral damages and another P200,000 in exemplary damages.
RTC Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa ruled that only Ressa and Santos are guilty of cyber libel charges. The court sentenced Ressa and Santos to 6 months and 1 day to up to 6 years in jail over charges filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng in a case that tested the 8-year-old Philippine Cybercrime Law.
The case stemmed from an article published by the news site in 2012 that cites an “intelligence report” which allegedly linked Keng, the private complainant, to human trafficking and drug smuggling.
Later at a press conference, Ressa said her conviction of cyber libel is a “pivotal moment” for democracy and a free press.
“This 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,” Ressa said shortly after a judge in Manila handed down the verdict.
“I think we’re redefining what the new world is gonna look like, what journalism is going to become. 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 the Constitution even if power attacks you directly,” Ressa said.
In a statement issued moments after the promulgation, Rappler described the guilty verdict on Ressa and Santos as a “failure of justice and democracy” that “sets a dangerous precedent not only for journalists but for everyone online.”
“Today marks diminished freedom and more threats to democratic rights supposedly guaranteed by the Philippine Constitution, especially in the context of looming anti-terrorism law,” it said on Twitter.
Montesa handed down the ruling after less than a year of trial. The promulgation of judgment was initially scheduled for April.
“There is no curtailment of the right to freedom of speech and of the press,” the judge said in the ruling.
Government prosecutors indicted Ressa, Santos, and Rappler for cyber libel in January 2019 over an article published by the news site in 2012 that cites an “intelligence report” linking Keng, a businessman and the private complainant, to human trafficking and drug smuggling.
The Philippines’ anti-cyber crime law would not be enacted until months after the article was published, but prosecutors alleged that a supposedly “republished” version of the story in February 2014 is covered by the law.
Rappler’s lawyers, the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), argued before the court that the “multiple republication” principle does not apply to online media. They also said the change made to the story in 2014 was merely a “spelling correction.”
FLAG said both Ressa and Santos had “no participation” in the alleged republishing. The lawyers further argued that no evidence was shown to indicate that Rappler, Inc., a corporate entity, could be made liable under the charge.
In the 37-page ruling, however, the judge said the prosecution was able to establish the presence of all elements of cyber libel, including “actual malice,” as she found that the article was “republished with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
The court said Keng did not immediately file a complaint against Rappler but instead initially reached out to demand the news site to publish his side of the story. The court said Rappler ended up not publishing a clarificatory article.
“Here, Rappler and both accused did not offer a scintilla of proof that they verified the imputations of various crimes in the disputed Article upon the person of Keng apart from a sweeping and unexplained reference to a purported ‘intelligence report’ and a ‘2002 Philippine Star report,'” it said.
The court said the defendants did not verify the veracity of the reports. It also pointed out that neither Ressa nor Santos took the witness stand.
In addition, the court found Ressa, who is Rappler’s “executive editor,” liable despite claims by the defense that she does not edit stories.
The court said it was a “clever ruse” for Rappler not to call Ressa its “editor-in-chief” “to avoid liability of the officers of a news organization” for libel.
“It is not a matter of whether she was actually involved in preparing or editing the subject article because the law simply states that she, as editor and business manager, is liable ‘as if’ she was the author, in accordance with Article 360 of the Revised Penal Code, in relation to RA 10175,” the court said.
Meanwhile, the court said the prescriptive period for cyber libel is 12 years, which means one could file a case within 12 years from publication of the allegedly libelous article. Rappler had claimed the prescriptive period was just one year.
Journalists’ groups and advocates in the Philippines and abroad have condemned the criminal cases against Ressa and Rappler as attacks on press freedom.
In a final note on the decision, Montesa said “there is no curtailment of the right to freedom of speech and of the press.”
“Each person, journalist or not has that constitutionally guaranteed right to freely express, write and make known his opinion. But with the highest ideals in mind what society expects is a responsible free press. It is in acting responsibly that freedom is given its true meaning,” she added.
The judge said free speech and press freedom “cannot and should not be used as a shield against accountability.”
“If a private individual, a so-called ‘netizen,’ can be held accountable for any defamatory posts or comments in the internet, so too must accountability and journalistic responsibility be brought to bear upon online news organizations since the extent of its influence, as powered by the internet, goes beyond the physical limitation of printed publications,” Montesa said.
Rappler lawyer Theodore Te said they will decide their next legal step in the next 15 days./Stacy Ang