Uproar as Duterte-critic scribe convicted in cyber libel case

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020 00:00 |
Philippine journalist Maria Ressa arrives for a press conference after attending the court’s verdict promulgation in Manila, yesterday. Photo/AFP

Manila, Monday

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa was on Monday convicted of cyber libel and faces up to six years behind bars in a case that watchdogs say marks a dangerous erosion of press freedom under President Rodrigo Duterte.

Ressa, 56, and her news site Rappler have been the target of a series of criminal charges and probes after publishing stories critical of Duterte’s policies, including his drug war that has killed thousands.

The award-winning former CNN journalist was sentenced to up to six years’ jail in the culmination of a case that has drawn international concern.

It was not immediately clear how long she would actually have to serve if the conviction becomes final, and Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa allowed Ressa to remain free on bail pending an appeal.

“We are going to stand up against any kind of attacks against press freedom,” a defiant Ressa told journalists after the conviction in Manila.

“I began as a reporter in 1986 and I have worked in so many countries around the world, I have been shot at and threatened but never this kind of death by a thousand cuts.” 

Monday’s verdict decided a trial that stemmed from a businessman’s 2017 complaint over a Rappler story five years earlier about his alleged ties to a then-judge on the nation’s top court.

Ressa, who Time magazine named as a Person of the Year in 2018, did not write the article and government investigators initially dismissed the businessman’s allegation.

But state prosecutors later filed charges against her and Reynaldo Santos, the former Rappler journalist who wrote it, under a controversial cyber crime statute aimed at online offences such as stalking and child pornography.

Santos was also found guilty on Monday and allowed to remain free on bail.

The law they are accused of violating took effect in September 2012, months after the article was published.

But prosecutors say Rappler’s typographical correction to the story in 2014 to change “evation” to “evasion” was a substantial modification and the article was thus covered by the law.

Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said the president backs free speech and has never filed a libel case against a journalist while in government.

“The president supports freedom of expression and freedom of the press. I hope that’s clear,” Roque said.

But rights groups and press advocates say the libel charge along with a series of tax cases against Rappler, and a government move to strip the news site of its licence, amount to state harassment.

“Ressa... and the Rappler team are being singled out for their critical reporting of the Duterte administration,” Amnesty International said.

Human Rights Watch said the case “will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom”.

Ressa’s verdict comes just over a month after government regulators forced off the air the nation’s top broadcaster ABS-CBN, following years of threats by Duterte to shut it down. -BBC and AFP

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