Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of news site Rappler, lost her appeal against a conviction for cyber libel, said the news website on Friday, July 8.
Ressa and her former colleague, Rey Santos Jr., face lengthy jail sentences, but the company said they will “avail of all legal remedies available to them.”
They still have the option to question the court’s decision before the Supreme Court.
The charges stemmed from a case filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng who demanded 50-million pesos in damages from the news organization.
In a May 2012 article on the late former chief justice Renato Corona’s links to businessmen, Santos quoted an intelligence report linking Keng to drugs and human trafficking.
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.
Earlier Ressa and Santos maintained that the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 erred in finding them guilty of cyber libel, which earned them a sentence of a prison term ranging from six months and a day to six years.
“The Court of Appeals’ decision is most unfortunate as it is a blow to press freedom,” said communications and journalism professor Danilo Arao of the University of the Philippines.
He said that considering the correction of a mere typographical error “republication … sends a chilling effect not just on journalists and news media organizations but also researchers and ordinary online users who post on the net, even prior to 2012.”
“I understand this may still be elevated to the Supreme Court. We hope that the [Court] would help create an atmosphere conducive to journalism practice,” said Arao.
He said the case of Ressa and Santos “should be a wake-up call for all of us to continue the campaign to junk the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.”
“We opposed it in the past, we should strongly oppose it again,” he said.
The ruling comes less than two weeks after Philippine authorities ordered Rappler to shut down ahead of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s last day in office.
Rappler on Friday described the decision to uphold the conviction as “unfortunate,” saying it “weakens the ability of journalists to hold power to account.”
“What is ultimately at stake is our democracy whose strength rests on a media that is not threatened by the state nor intimidated by forces out to silence critical voices,” Rappler said in a statement.
Ressa has long been a vocal critic of Duterte and the deadly drug war he launched in 2016, triggering what media advocates say is a grinding series of criminal charges, probes and online attacks against her and Rappler.
Ressa, who is also a US citizen, is fighting at least seven court cases, including the cyber libel case, for which she has been on bail and faces up to six years in prison.
Rappler, which faces eight cases, had to fight for survival as Duterte’s government accused it of violating a constitutional ban on foreign ownership in securing funding, as well as tax evasion.
Just days before Duterte left office, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission ordered Rappler to shut down for violating “constitutional and statutory restrictions on foreign ownership in mass media.”
Ressa vowed the company would continue to operate as they followed the legal process, but expressed hope that the situation would improve under Duterte’s successor Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Marcos Jr, who took over from Duterte on June 30, has given few clues about his views on the website and the broader issue of freedom of speech. – with a report from Ronald Reyes and AFP
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