Ressa, Santos’ cyberlibel conviction part of Duterte’s political vendetta, critics say

The guilty verdict on Rappler’s chief executive officer Maria Ressa and former staff Rey Santos Jr. earned swift condemnation from rights groups, calling the decision by the Manila Regional Trial Court (MRTC) part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s political vendetta against critical media outfits.

In a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said June 15, 2020 shall be remembered as a dark day, not only for independent Philippine media but for all Filipinos.

Ressa and Santos were found guilty of cyberlibel by MRTC Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa and were sentenced to a minimum of six months and one day to a maximum of six years in jail. The verdict has cleared Rappler of liabilities.

Businessman Wilfredo Keng filed the cyberlibel case against Ressa, Santos, and Rappler over a May 2012 article on his alleged links to the late former chief justice Renato Corona.

Maria Ressa (with microphone) holds a press briefing after conviction of cyberlibel today in Manila. (Photo by Raymund B. Villanueva)

Swift condemnation

The NUJP said the verdict has implications far beyond the case filed against Ressa and Santos as it affirmed the State’s manipulation and “weaponization” of the law to stifle criticism and dissent.

The NUJP disagreed with the decision, saying it allowed the retroactive application of the law for a supposed offense committed before it existed by the simple expedience of declaring a typographical correction a “republication”.

The group also said the court recalibrated the prescription period for the offense.

“In effect, the trial was a test run for the latest weapon the State can now wield to intimidate and silence not only the media but all citizens who call out government abuse,” the NUJP said.

Arts and media alliance Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity (LODI) said the decision successfully turned the Cybercrime Law into a potent tool for political vendetta against journalists and citizens whose only “crime” is to be perceived as critical of government.

“If left unchallenged, the verdict would make oppression of press freedom and free expression the law of the land, and shatter the Bill of Rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It would render journalists and citizens defenseless against government and officials who will use anything and everything to evade accountability and to silence those who dare ask questions,” LODI said.

The group also said the case was really about President Duterte it accused of not being able to stand independent-minded journalists and journalism.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) said the decision was a “menacing blow to press freedom” and adds a new weapon in a growing legal arsenal against constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in the Philippines.

FOCAP said it is extremely alarmed over the decision.

“Convicting Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. for an ‘updated article,’ that 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,” the Photojournalists Center of the Philippines said in its own statement.

The People’s Alternative Media Network also blamed the Duterte government, saying that “[t]aken as a whole, this barrage of legal cases and accusations against Rappler, ABS-CBN, and other independent journalists is clearly a part of the administration’s continuing attack against the media — with a determined aim of instilling fear among media practitioners committed to reporting the truth and holding the administration into account.”

Human rights group Karapatan said Ressa and Santos’ conviction sends the dangerous message that journalists who expose misdeeds of those in power are more vulnerable to retaliation to silence them.

“It also sends an even more dangerous message to the public that anyone and everyone can be criminalized on their views and opinions,” Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said.

“With the conviction of Ressa and Santos, the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the killings and threats against journalists, the numerous violations faced by Filipinos on a daily basis and the passage of the terror bill, a full-blown dictatorship is made more palpable,” Palabay added.

Families of political prisoners said it is alarmed with the conviction, saying it clearly sets a dangerous precedent that those who expose the government’s misdeeds will be persecuted.

“As how political prisoners were arrested for standing up against oppression, the verdict dramatizes how laws are being twisted to silence dissenters and truth-tellers,” Fides Lim, KAPATID spokesperson, said.

National Union of People’s Lawyers president Edre Olalia for his part said the verdict is a “most disappointing and bad news.”

“Once again, a number of our courts have missed the noble opportunity to hand out verdicts saying they will not be a party to the insanity and legal bullying,” Olalia 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 added.

(Photo by Raymund B. Villanueva)

‘We will fight’

In a press briefing after the promulgation, lawyer Theodore Te said they still have to study the entire decision and decide on how to contest the verdict.

Ressa for her part said the guilty verdict was not unexpected given the context of everything that has happened to Rappler in the four years of the Duterte administration.

“I still face seven criminal charges. It is not unexpected and, at the same time, I feel like we will keep fighting,” Ressa told reporters in a briefing after the promulgation.

“I appeal to you, the journalists in this room, the Filipinos who are listening, to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale, we are meant to make you afraid. So, I appeal again, don’t be afraid…We will fight,” Ressa said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)