A Manila judge has handed down a guilty verdict in the cyber libel case filed against Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of news outfit Rappler, and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr.
It is a dangerous precedent for journalists and for the millions of Filipinos who spend hours daily in one of the world’s most vibrant — and toxic — social media landscapes.
The judge’s decision sweeps away the one-year prescription period against libel, lengthening it to 12 years.
The original Rappler article was published four months before the law against cybercrime was passed by the administration of former president Benigno Aquino in September 2012.
The law includes cyber libel, a new crime with higher penalties than the crime of libel.
Businessman Wilfredo Keng filed the criminal complaint five years after publication, but judge Estacio-Montesa upheld the government’s claim that correction and updating on Rappler’s original post constitutes “republication.”
Rappler editors maintained that they only changed a typographical error in the story.
The verdict also highlights why Philippine journalists have long campaigned to decriminalize libel.
The original law and the Cybercrime Law provision downplay the prosecution’s need to prove falsity and malice. It is the rare law the foists the onus of proof on the defendant.
The verdict, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, is only the latest in “a chain of media repression.”
Circles of repression
Rappler’s cyber libel case should not be seen in isolation from other attacks against the online news platform.
The news outfit faces seven other cases, including tax evasion charges that stem from Duterte’s claim that it is a foreign-owned media company.
The Court of Appeals has asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to review its shutdown order on Rappler.
The attacks on Rappler, which include a coverage ban on Duterte, must also be seen through the prism of increasingly authoritarian rule.
The president often signals impending government moves by unleashing verbal abuse against perceived enemies. These attacks are magnified by a vast troll army that utilize disinformation and the most vicious personal attacks against critics.
The government recently shuttered the country’s largest broadcast network, ABS-CBN. There has also been a spike on threats and harassment against journalists, especially as the government struggled to stop to contain the political fallout from its chaotic COVID-19 lockdown.
National security officials have taken to hurling charges of a communist conspiracy whenever government scandals and actions rouse great public outcry. These conspiracy theories almost always include news outfits and journalists known for critical coverage.
Assaults on press freedom and freedom of expression also go hand in hand. During the COVID-19 lockdown, police in Cebu City swooped down to arrest film writer Maria Victoria Beltran without a warrant for a sarcastic post about the city’s pandemic containment program.
Police also arrested at least two groups of aid givers for carrying signs criticizing the government’s health emergency response.
Authorities have stepped up the filing of inciting of sedition charges against politicians, clergy, and labor activists. In at least one case, government “evidence” included copies of independent news publications.
The court verdict against Ressa can only encourage the Duterte regime to greater abuses.
It strengthens the culture of impunity in the Philippines, which has seen the killings of thousands of poor drug suspects and hundreds of activists in the four years of Duterte’s reign.
Duterte has repeatedly shown an intolerance of dissent, threatening arrests and even killings of rights workers and restive peasant and indigenous activists.
There is nothing the government wants better than make citizens feel helpless, unmoored, and weak in the face of its might and its efforts to subvert all arms of government in pursuit of tyrannical goals.
Following the verdict, Ressa addressed Filipinos.
“This is not just about Rappler or about us. This is about you. Because freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen,” she said.
Filipinos know from experience that the fight for freedom, for human rights, for civil liberties, and for truth is no picnic. Despite years of battering by Duterte, they continue to assert the right to free expression.
They will absorb this punch and pour in the will to transform pain into courage even as the dangers exponentially increase for dissenters.
Filipinos will fight because the alternative is the silence of the graveyard.
Inday Espina-Varona is an award-winning journalist in the Philippines. She is a recipient of the “Prize for Independence” of the Reporters Without Borders in 2018. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.