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How the Philippines Cleverly Punished the CEO of a News Outlet that had Posted Years of Critical Reports

Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa gestures during a press conference in Manila, Philippines on Monday June 15, 2020. Ressa, an award-winning journalist critical of the Philippine president, her online news site Rappler Inc. and Santos…
Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa gestures during a press conference in Manila, Philippines on Monday June 15, 2020. Ressa, an award-winning journalist critical of the Philippine president, her online news site Rappler Inc. and Santos…

A Manila Regional Trial Court branch convicted the chief executive of popular media outlet Rappler of cyber-libel Monday in a case seen as back-handed retaliation over a string of articles critical of the Philippine president.

The court ruled that Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. had committed cyber-libel, a first for Philippine journalists, over a report posted in 2012. Each faces a jail term of up to six years, Rappler reported.

Philippine authorities got the pair on cyber-libel, a charge usually aimed at pornographers and stalkers, through flukes of timing and details of the law itself, analysts of the case believe.

The government of President Rodrigo Duterte was suspected of pushing legal agencies to seek the conviction because it resents Rappler for reports that criticize its policies. The verdict dovetails with the Duterte government’s anti-fake news laws and its restrictions on reporters going out during the national anti-coronavirus lockdown, his critics say.

“We’re under lockdown, we have a pandemic and the government seems intent on controlling free speech, so this is a very dangerous situation,” said Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the Manila-based Bagong Alyansang Makabayan alliance of leftist political organizations.

Rappler has been the subject of 11 “cases and investigations”, Ressa told an online news conference June 10. She rejects the cyber-libel charges. “I always say I have not done anything wrong that I haven’t done in almost 35 years of being a journalist,” she told the news conference.

A judge has allowed Ressa to remain free on bail pending an appeal.

Journalism advocacy groups and Ressa’s lawyers point to glitches in timing and an unusual interpretation of the law to suggest government retaliation. The media outlet questions Duterte’s 4-year-old, deadly anti-drug campaign and his intent to back away from military ties with the United States, for example.

Among the timing oddities, the cyber-libel law was enacted four months after Rappler posted the story in question. The Department of Justice said last year that the law could extend to cases dating back as far as 12 years.

The justice department charged Ressa and Rappler itself – which was cleared of charges Monday – in February 2019 over a report on possible ties between a Philippine businessman and a former president of the Philippine Supreme Court.

Rappler’s story linked the former justice, Renato Corona, to businessman Wilfredo Keng and cited an intelligence report allegedly connecting Keng to drug and human trafficking. Keng, who disputed the allegations against him, filed a case against Rappler in 2017 with the National Bureau of Investigation cybercrime division.

Although a division of the bureau “junked” the cyberlibel complaint, a former bureau director later called it an “unfinished evaluation”, Philippine broadcast network ABS-CBN online said. the bureau filed its case in 2018 and Ressa was arrested last year.

The 2014 correction of a spelling error in the controversial report gave the prosecution more clout. When a “defamatory statement is published several times, it gives rise to as many offenses as there are publications," a trial court judge said, as quoted by Rappler.

Ressa, a former CNN Philippines investigative reporter and Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, told the news conference last week she felt “under attack” and “anger” for doing her job. Her lawyer, Ted Te, vowed to appeal.

“We’re going to challenge it all the way to the supreme court,” Te told the new conference.

Media freedoms took root in the Philippines after martial law ended in the 1980s. But the Southeast Asian democracy of 109.6 million people ranks 136th this year out of 180 countries in the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index. It had placed at No. 134 in 2019.

Duterte asked reporters in 2017, a year into his term, to avoid lies, “sensationalized news” and “overpublicized political propaganda.”

In a similar case, ABS-CBN quit broadcasts in May after the National Telecommunications Commission halted a franchise license. Duterte had separately accused the network of declining to air his political campaign ads.

However, most media in the Philippines still operate freely as long as they report known facts, rather than taking strong viewpoints or digging too deep, country observers say.

“If you put (Rappler and ABS-CBN) together plus Duterte’s foul language against the media, then you get the impression there’s a systematic attack against the media,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. “But if you look at the big picture, there’s a few other thousand media outlets out there.”