Maria Ressa guilty of cyber libel in blow to Philippines press freedom
Update 1: new headline and lede, adds detail and reactions, minor edits throughout
By Sara Gómez Armas
Manila, June 15 (efe-epa).- Philippine journalist Maria Ressa faces up to six years in prison after being convicted on Monday in a contentious cyber libel case, triggering alarms about the state of press freedom in the country.
“The decision for me is devastating because it essentially says that we are wrong,” 56-year-old Ressa said in a press conference on her way out of the court after the announcement of the verdict. “It’s a blow to us, but it’s also not unexpected considering we are going to stand up against any kind of attack against press freedom.”
The conviction can be appealed before the Court of Appeals and, in the second instance, before the Supreme Court, so the final sentence of between six months and six years will not be known until the end of the judicial process.
“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,” Ressa said.
“Don’t be afraid. Because if you don’t use your rights, you will lose them. If we don’t challenge a brazen move to try to roll back the rights guaranteed in the Constitution, we will lose them. We shouldn’t be voluntarily giving up our rights,” she said.
Ressa, named 2018 Person of the Year by TIME magazine, in 2012 founded Rappler, a media outlet that has uncovered several scandals involving President Rodrigo Duterte and was first in reporting abuses committed in the war on drugs campaign he launched after coming to power in 2016.
“Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything. If we can’t do our jobs, then your rights will be lost,” she said.
Ressa was convicted along with Reynaldo Santos over an article written by Santos that Rappler published in May 2012, which quoted an intelligence report linking businessman and complainant Wilfredo Keng to drug trafficking.
They are the first two journalists in the Philippines convicted of cyber libel.
The pair, who are out on bail as the case can be appealed, have also been ordered to pay compensation of 400,000 pesos (about $8,000) – made up of 200,000 pesos in moral damages and another 200,000 pesos in exemplary damages – to the businessman.
Rappler as a company was determined to have no liability.
This is not the only judicial process against the award-winning journalist, who has at least seven other cases pending, which she said Monday were a “whole slew of other cases of tax evasion and a whole slew based on foreign ownership and securities fraud.”
“This is a pivotal movement for the Philippines, not only for our democracy, but for the idea of what press freedom means,” said Ressa, who has claimed political persecution by Duterte’s administration, which has already tried to revoke the media license and banned Rappler reporters from the presidential palace.
However, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque denied on Monday that Duterte had been behind any effort to restrict press freedom, adding the court’s decision must be respected.
The verdict has sparked a wave of solidarity with the journalist and Rappler, not only from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and human rights organizations in the country, but also from overseas, where Ressa has received numerous awards.
“This is a dark day not only for independent Philippine media but for all Filipinos. The verdict basically kills freedom of speech and of the press. But we will not be cowed. We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms,” the NUJP said.
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said it was “extremely alarmed” over Ressa’s conviction, which was “a menacing blow to press freedom in the Philippines and adds a new weapon in a growing legal arsenal against constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in an Asian outpost of democracy.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The verdict against Maria Ressa highlights the ability of the Philippines’ abusive leader to manipulate the laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices whatever the ultimate cost to the country.”