Maria Ressa ’86, a journalist and CEO of Rappler, an online news network, has been found guilty of cyber libel charges in the Philippines, in what many critics have called a blow to freedom of the press in the Southeast Asian country.
Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of Branch 46 of the Regional Trial Court in Manila handed down the decision on June 15, a verdict that could send Ressa and former Rappler journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr. to prison for up to six years.
Both Ressa and Santos were permitted to post bail — though, the judge’s decision indicates a sentence ranging from a six months and one day minimum to six-year maximum for both defendants. An attorney for the defendants indicated that they will appeal the convictions.
In a briefing following her conviction, Ressa sat next to her lawyer, speaking to a crowded room of reporters behind a face mask. “If we can’t do our jobs, then your rights will be lost,” she said.
“It’s a very dangerous precedent,” she added in another interview. “It’s not just Rey, me, and Rappler on trial. It is also the judiciary. It is under attack now.”
In a New York Times phone interview last week, Ressa denied the charges and said that the indictment was an attempt to silence the news organization — which has been highly critical of the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte and its violent crackdown on drug dealers and users.
“Corrupt, coerce, co-opt,” she said. “You’re with us or against us. If I’m convicted, then it’s codified into law.”
On Saturday, the veteran journalist characterized the criminal charges against her and the organization as “death by a thousand cuts.”
The suit stemmed from a May 2012 Rappler article entitled “CJ using SUVs of ‘controversial’ businessmen,” written by Santos. The article alleged that the now-impeached, late Chief Justice Renato Corona had a “penchant for using vehicles registered under the names of controversial personalities” — and linked to “questionable transactions and persons.” The article cited his usage of a Suburban SUV registered to Wilfredo D. Keng — a wealthy Filipino-Chinese businessman — as an example. Furthermore, Santos referenced a report from the National Security Council investigating Keng’s involvement with illegal activities, including “human trafficking and drug smuggling.”
Keng vehemently denied the story and demanded that Rappler remove the article, to no avail. In a seven-page October 2017 affidavit-complaint filed with the National Bureau of Investigation, Keng accused Santos, Ressa, and Rappler, Inc. of publishing and circulating the article “without observing the ethical standards of journalism.” He said in the complaint that the story contained “malicious imputations of crimes, vices, or defects, with bad intentions and unjustifiable motives, purposely to malign, dishonor, discredit, insult and assassinate” his character and reputation.
Initially, regulators dismissed the charges because the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 — the law through which one could be charged for libel committed through a computer system — was not officially passed by then-President Benigno Aquino until four months after the initial publication of the Rappler article. However, Keng’s lawyer pointed to a February 2014 update to the original article — which Rappler asserted was merely a “correction on a typographical error” — in order to retroactively apply the law, which was upheld by senior officials.
The court interpreted the 2014 update as a republication and thus valid as a potential libel offense, and reaffirmed a Department of Justice Act from last year extending the prescription period of cyber libel law from one year to 12 years.
In her 37-page decision, Estacio-Montesa wrote that both Reynaldo Santos, Jr. and Maria Ressa were found to be guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” of cyber libel — publishing a false statement damaging to a person’s reputation via electronic means.
Estacio-Montesa also indicated in the decision that the published article was not only discreditable and defamatory, but also published in malice — writing, “The Court is convinced that both accused are aware of the probably falsity of the subject article … [but] did not bother to publish the clarificatory article and they just let the libelous article remain in their website.”
Estacio-Montesa said of Monday’s verdict, “The exercise of a freedom should and must be used with due regard to the freedom of others.”
Despite not having written the article herself, Ressa was still deemed liable as an “editor or manager of a newspaper, who has active charge and control over the publication.” However, the judge cleared Rappler, Inc. of any corporate liability.
The court awarded Keng approximately $4,000 (200,000 Philippine pesos) in “moral damages,” though he originally demanded damages in the amount of PHP25,000,000 for the “serious anxiety, sleepless nights and mental anguish” he suffered as a result of Rappler’s actions. The court also awarded Keng approximately $4,000 (PHP200,000) for “exemplary damages,” imposed as punishment for “reprehensible conduct” and to prevent “repetition of socially deleterious actions.”
An online statement released by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines in the wake of the decision read, “This is a dark day not only for independent Philippine media but for all Filipinos. The verdict basically kills freedom of speech and of the press. But we will not be cowed. We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms.”
After a 2019 arrest, over 100 members of the University journalism community — former members of The Daily Princetonian, The University Press Club, other alumni currently involved in journalism, and professors in the certificate program — published a letter in support of Ressa.
“Our fellow Princetonian has been detained ... by the Philippine government in what has become a clear campaign of intimidation against the investigative journalism she has enabled in her home country,” noted the letter, signed by New Yorker editor David Remnick ’81, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu ’88, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Juliet Eilperin ’92, and 115 others.
“Rappler has been under attack for four years,” Ressa said during the press briefing in reference to nearly a dozen cases that the news organization has faced, or is currently facing. During the virtual Commencement ceremony earlier this month, Ressa told graduates that the cumulative penalties for all of the charges against her would be over 100 years in prison.
“This is a pivotal moment for the Philippines,” she said during the press briefing. “And a pivotal moment not just for our democracy, but for the idea of what a free press means.”
“We’re going to aim to be better, stronger.” Ressa continued. “Investigative journalism must continue. We’re at a precipice. If we fall over, we’re no longer a democracy.”