A day after she was found guilty of ‘cyberlibel’ charges, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa on Tuesday morning (16 June) said that she was “stunned” by the judge’s purported decision to ignore the “legal acrobatics that made this case possible”.
Ms Ressa, one of the Philippines’ most renowned journalists at present, in a Twitter thread added that she was befuddled by how the said “legal acrobatics” had happened.
“[S]tatute of limitations changed from 1 yr to 12 yrs; codifying “republication” The PH gov’t and Keng lawyers say he is just “a private individual”,” she wrote, referring to Wilfredo Keng, the businessman who brought the cyberlibel suit against her and Rappler.
(1/4) Good morning from Manila!! Infinite thanks to so many people. Here and around the world. I’ve been inundated the past few days. I’m stunned that Judge Montesa ignored the legal acrobatics that made this case possible. Our search for justice continues. #HoldTheLine
— Maria Ressa (@mariaressa) June 15, 2020
Ms Ressa — who acts as Rappler’s executive editor — and former researcher and writer Reynaldo Santos Jr’s ‘cyberlibel’ charges arose over a story published in 2012 which reported allegations of links between Mr Keng and a top judge in the Philippines.
When the case was first brought three years ago, it was dismissed due to the facts being outside of the statute of limitations. However, the Philippines’ Department of Justice had later allowed the case to go to trial and extended the liability period from one to 12 years.
The Justice Department said that the case was allowed to go to trial as the online article had been updated in February 2014 to correct a spelling error — in spite of the argument made by Ms Ressa’s lawyers that the ‘cyberlibel’ law did not yet exist at the time the article was published.
While Rappler was not found liable for the ‘cyberlibel’ charges, Ms Ressa and Mr Santos have been instructed to pay 200,000 Philippine pesos (S$5,552.74) in moral damages and another 200,000 pesos in exemplary damages.
Ms Ressa told a press conference after the hearing on Monday that press freedom 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,” she said, adding: “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 our constitution?”
Amal Clooney, international human rights lawyer and Ms Ressa’s lead counsel, said that the court’s verdict on Monday signals its complicity “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. I hope that the appeals court will set the record straight in this case,” she added.
Ms Ressa currently also faces another libel case, two criminal cases alleging illegal foreign ownership in her companies, and investigations into her old tax returns as part of 11 government investigations and court cases — all of which could result in approximately 100 years in jail for her.
Rappler is known for its critical views of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration — including the anti-narcotics campaign resulting in as many as tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings, as reported by The Guardian — and played an instrumental role in exposing bot armies and corruption in the country.
Mr Duterte’s alleged human rights violations and suppression of the media have also widely attracted criticisms from other observers, particularly after ABS-CBN — the Philippines’ largest broadcaster — was forced to go off air via a cease-and-desist order.
In a statement on Monday, ABS-CBN reaffirmed its commitment to “upholding the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech in the country”.
“We will remain steadfast in bringing news and information to the public and providing a voice to ordinary Filipinos,” the leading broadcaster added.
Mr Duterte’s administration has also recently passed a new anti-terrorism act that gives the authorities powers to make arrests without warrant, to detain persons without any charges, and other provisions that may be used to silence dissenters in the country.
Retired Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio told Rappler early this month that the new anti-terror legislation “penalizes freedom of speech” — which may serve as grounds for challenging the particular legislation “on its face or right away without having to wait for an actual injury”.
“Facial challenge was not allowed (then) because there was no provision penalizing freedom of speech in the 2007 Human Security Law. In the 2020 Anti-Terror Law, inciting to terrorism is penalized. So freedom of speech is involved, and thus facial challenge should be allowed,” he explained.
Lawyer Romel Bagares, one of the Supreme Court petitioners against the 2012 Cybercrime Law, warned that Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa’s ruling against Ms Ressa and Mr Santos on Monday would mean that articles from years ago can be used against journalists and publishers under the ‘cyberlibel’ law.
“Under the judge’s interpretation of digital publication and republication, opening access to the digital archives is republication,” Mr Bagares told Rappler.