Left to right, former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos, CEO and Executive editor Maria Ressa and attorney Theodore Te arrive at the Manila trial court on June 15, 2020. Photo: AFP/Dante Diosina Jr/Anadolu Agency

MANILA – In a major blow to Philippine press freedom and democracy, a regional trial court found Maria Ressa, founder of the independent Rappler news platform and perhaps the country’s most prominent journalist, guilty of violating a cyber libel law.

The verdict, which has been roundly criticized as politically-motivated and aimed at stifling Rappler’s critical coverage of the government, could carry up to six years of imprisonment for both Ressa and Rappler’s former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr, who wrote the story in question.

The two journalists have been accused of publishing a malicious report about a certain businessman, even though Ressa didn’t author the article and, even more questionably, the cyber libel law was passed months after the story’s publication. Both Ressa and Santos were allowed to post bail pending an appeal.

“To cut down press freedom in this way and to weaponize the law is a whole new level,” lamented Ressa, describing the court verdict as a direct assault on Philippine democracy. “It is something I haven’t seen since the days of Marcos. And to see it again is heartbreaking.”

President Rodrigo Duterte’s government is ramping up pressure on critical voices.

Last month, his government shut down the ABS-CBN news network, the Philippines’ largest media conglomerate, after Duterte legislative allies refused to renew its franchise on time.

Over the past few weeks, government-aligned legislators have subjected the network’s management, including its owner Eugenio Lopez III, to humiliating cross-examination, even questioning his Filipino citizenship. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the campaign trail in 2016. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Since the imposition of a nationwide lockdown in March, the Duterte administration has exploited emergency powers to justify warrantless arrests and subpoenas against dozens of netizens and critics nationwide.

The government is also set to adopt a draconian anti-terrorism law, which could potentially criminalize civil dissent and allow for long periods of detention without trial.

Ressa, who faces seven other charges including tax evasion, is the latest victim of the ongoing crackdown on dissent.  

“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,” warned Ressa shortly after 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,” added the veteran journalist, who was chosen as Time  magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018.

In a formal statement, Rappler, described the verdict as a  “failure of justice and democracy”, which “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,” the statement said, warning of a reign of terror amid a state of emergency where Duterte has special powers to crack down on dissent.

Duterte’s Spokesman Harry Roque, however, was quick to downplay the verdict’s significance, calling on the media and critics to “respect the decision.”

“The president has said repeatedly that the has never filed a case of libel against a journalist despite his negative reporting,” said the presidential spokesman, claiming that Duterte had no direct role in the verdict. “He believes in free speech, and believes that anyone who works in government should not be thin skinned,” he added.

Filipino police officers investigate an alleged drug dealer killed by unidentified gunman in Manila in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis

Throughout the past four years, Rappler has regularly published articles and opinion pieces critical of the president’s bloody drug war. The online news portal has also exposed corruption with the government as well as Duterte’s family while shedding light on the government’s online troll army and disinformation campaigns.

In response, the Filipino president, who once warned journalists “are not exempt from assassination”, has regularly threatened and even personally insulted Ressa. Duterte and his allies have accused Ressa and Rappler of being CIA-funded and acting in cohorts with foreign enemies.

The government has also sought to shut down Rappler by accusing it of violating the country’s strict laws against foreign ownership of media.

In 2017, Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors filed libel charges against Ressa for a 2012 article published on Rappler which accused businessman Wilfredo Keng of bribing a certain judge and involvement in various crimes.

Prosecutors accused Rappler of refusing to publish Keng’s rebuttal, and argued that the article was republished in 2014, a year following the passage of the cybercrime law.

The National Bureau of Investigation’s (NBI) legal department had earlier dismissed Keng’s complaint on the basis of a lapsed prescription period, but they were eventually overruled by the bureau’s higher officials, who transmitted the complaint to the DOJ. Critics believe political pressure may have caused the flip-flop decision.

“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,” said the lightning rod verdict.

The court accused Ressa of a “clever ruse…to avoid liability of the officers of a news organization” by shunning the title of editor-in-chief. It also maintained that the cyberlaw applies to the article, which was only corrected for minor errors in 2014 without any significant content change.

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa (C) giving a statement after posting bail at a regional trial court in Manila, February 14, 2019. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

It also rejected the defense team’s argument that libel charges could only be filed within a year of an article’s publication.

Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, who presided over the verdict, maintained “There is no curtailment of the right to freedom of speech and of the press,” and that liability for libelous articles extends up to 12 years from the date of publication.

“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.

Rappler lawyer Theodore Te said they will decide their next legal step in the next 15 days. Amal Clooney, the celebrity lawyer also helping with Ressa’s case, lashed out at the court decision for its “complicit[y] in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse.”

“This conviction is an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines.” Clooney said in a statement.

Vice President Leni Robredo, the presumptive leader of the opposition, called the verdict a “chilling development.”

“We must remember that this is merely the latest instance of law being utilized to muzzle our free press. Silencing, harassing, and weaponizing law against the media sends a clear message to every dissenting voice: Keep quiet or you are next,” she added.