Court convicts Maria Ressa, ex-Rappler researcher of cyber libel

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and a former researcher 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. 

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.

The court likewise ordered Ressa and Santos “jointly and severally” to pay businessman Wilfredo Keng, the private complainant, P200,000 in moral damages and P200,000 in exemplary damages.

Meanwhile, Rappler, as company, was declared to have no liability by the court.

Failure of justice, democracy

Later at a press conference, Ressa said her 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,” the veteran journalist 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”

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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.

Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa handed down the ruling after less than a year of trial. The promulgation of judgment was scheduled for April. 

“There is no curtailment of the right to freedom of speech and of the press,” the judge said in the ruling.

“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.

Government prosecutors 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. 

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. —KG/KBK/RSJ, GMA News