Maria Ressa, the CEO and executive editor of the Philippines-based news website Rappler was on 15 June convicted of cyber libel by the Manila Regional Trial Court. The court sentenced Ressa to a minimum of six months and one day to a maximum of six years in jail over charges filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng in a case that tested the 8-year-old Philippine cybercrime law.
Keng had accused Ressa and writer Reynaldo Santos Jr of cyber libel over a Rappler story that alleged links between him and a top judge. According to local media reports, Rappler was found to have no liability, but both Ressa and Santos were found guilty. They are entitled to post-conviction bail and can appeal against the verdict. Both Ressa and Santos have been ordered to pay 200,000 Philippine pesos in moral damages and another 200,000 pesos in exemplary damages.
According to a Rappler news report, Keng filed the complaint in 2017 or five years later, beyond the more typical one-year prescription period for libel under the Revised Penal Code. But because the Philippines cybercrime law is silent on the prescription period for cyber libel, the Department of Justice found an obscure law – Republic Act No. 3326 – to extend libel’s prescription period from one year to 12 years.
There was also a question of whether the cybercrime law could apply because it was enacted into law only in September 2012, or four months after the publication of the article. But the Philippines Department of Justice ruled that because the article reflected an update at a later date when the cybercrime law was already enacted, the law would apply. The update corrected a previously missed typographical error – from “evation” to “evasion.”
The conviction has received universal criticism and is being been called an attempt to silence the critics of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The Guardian in its editorial said that the persecution of Ressa should not only horrify her compatriots and her counterparts elsewhere. “The conviction of Ms Ressa and a former colleague for cyber libel this week, which could see them serve up to six years in prison, is designed to chill the media. But it should reverberate throughout her nation and more widely because it forms part of a broader assault on democracy,” The Guardian said.
Social networking platform Twitter also extended support to Ressa and criticized the conviction. “We stand with Maria Ressa and journalists around the world who are being persecuted for doing their jobs and holding power to account. Governments should not impinge on the fundamental values of a free press. It must end now,” Twitter said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was scathing in its response. “Today’s conviction and sentencing of Maria Ressa of up to six years in jail is an outrageous crime against press freedom,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Although out on bail while she appeals the verdict, Ressa’s wrongful conviction sends a message to all journalists that you could be next if you report critically on President Rodrigo Duterte’s government.”
The conviction of a prominent journalist for criminal libel is a devastating blow to media freedom in the Philippines, Human Rights Watch (HRW) 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,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW. “The Rappler case will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom.”
Wilfredo Keng rebuts Rappler’s claims
Meanwhile, Keng issued a statement on the day of the conviction saying that this case has nothing to with the government as he was a private citizen. He also said that he was in support of freedom of the press.
“This is not a fight against the press, an institution I deeply respect and uphold. For years, I have personally suffered from Rappler’s false accusations against me,” Keng said. “It is of public record. My counsel had pleaded and begged with Rappler to correct their false public accusations that I am a criminal, or at the very least, to publish my side. They refused. They have denied me my right to clear my name.”
This article has been updated on 17 June 2020 with Shardul Sharma’s edited excerpt from Wilfredo Keng’s email to us.