Yesterday was a dark day for democracy. Only three days after Independence Day, many of us woke up devastated to the news that Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted of cyber libel.
The online news site has been under fire for its coverage of the bloody drug war and critical reporting of the Duterte administration. Ever since Duterte took office in 2016, his administration has continuously intimidated and threatened Ressa, her colleagues and the news site. The current case follows a list of seven other cases against the news site including tax evasion and foreign ownership. In a 2018 Rappler report, Ressa said that the cyber libel complaint is a breakdown of the rule of law that threatens not just journalists but anyone publishing anything and added that the timing of the complaint about a 2012 article seemed suspicious and coincidental.
The article was then updated in February 2014 to correct a typographical error. Keng used this “reposting” to claim that the article was covered by the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 and filed a cyber libel complaint against it because he found that the article contained content meant “purposely to malign, dishonor and discredit my character and good reputation.” NBI Cybercrime Chief Manuel Eduarte said the Cybercrime Division received the complaint in October 2017, but the copy of the complaint provided to Rappler was dated Dec. 19, 2017. On Feb. 22, 2018, Eduarte closed the investigation since the prescription period had passed and the NBI’s legal and evaluation service found no basis to proceed with the complaint.
Keng submitted a supplemental affidavit on Feb. 28, 2018 that claimed that the prescriptive period for crimes falling under libel or Section 4(c) (4) of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 is 15 years. About a week after, Eduarte’s division revived the case on March 2 and said that Rappler could be held liable due to the theory of “continuous publication”—the defamatory statements made online would still be considered a crime unless the authors would take the article down from the site. However, Ressa and Santos filed a counter-affidavit asserting that the crime of libel has totally been extinguished because its prescription is only valid for up to one year according to the Revised Penal Code (RPC).
Despite this, the Department of Justice still recommended the filing of cyber libel charges against Ressa and Santos. In February 2019, Presiding Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa of Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 issued the warrant of arrest against Ressa. The next day, the NBI stormed the Rappler headquarters to arrest the veteran journalist. On June 15, 2020, the Manila RTC Branch 46 found the prosecution’s evidence sufficient in establishing the guilt of both Santos and Ressa. They were each ordered to pay P200,000 in moral damages and another P200,000 in exemplary damages in addition to a sentence of six months and one day up to six years in jail. This can be appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court. Ressa and Santos remain free on a bail they posted in 2019 and have 15 days to decide on what legal steps to take.
What does this mean for press freedom?
Reports clearly stated that the article in question was released prior to the enactment of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 and edited years before Keng’s complaint which was said to have passed the prescription period. What exactly does all that mean? Article 90 of the RPC states that the “crime of libel or other similar offenses shall prescribe in one year” and “crimes punishable by other afflictive penalties shall prescribe in 15 years.” Lawyers pointed out that the cyber libel in question applies to this prescription period because it falls under the definition of libel in Article 355 of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 as “amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future” and could also be considered a “similar offense” as stated in Article 90 of the RPC. Additionally, Sol Mawis, Dean of the Lyceum University of the Philippines Law School, rebuffed the theory of continuing crime and said that “it cannot be a continuing crime because there’s only one criminal intent. If you published today, your criminal intent today would be different from your criminal intent tomorrow.”
Vice President Leni Robredo highlighted the importance of a free press in the context of the pandemic in her statement saying “…we need the free press not only to ensure that our collective response is based on accurate information but also to uphold truth-telling and the courage to speak it as vital cornerstones of our democracy.” She also warned that if the government can weaponize the law against the media, then we should be vigilant on what this means for our individual freedoms.
Carlos Conde of the Human Rights Watch Philippines told Aljazeera that the case was a desperate attempt to silence Rappler because prosecution deemed the article republished over the correction of one typographical error. The way that the prosecution stretched the law and extended the prescription period of one year to 12 years to fit the complaint filed by Keng sets a dangerous ground for journalists and for anyone releasing content online. Cybercrime law expert and Rappler’s lawyer on the case Jose Jesus “JJ” Disini said that the law is dangerous because it leaves the media severely vulnerable to punishment. Disini adds that anyone including bloggers who have libelous articles that remain accessible could be charged with libel.
According to a statement by Rappler, they emphasized that the ruling “weakens the ability of journalists to hold power to account” and called on their media colleagues and advocates of the freedom of the press to remain vigilant and vocal. On the day of the conviction, Ressa said her plight is “a cautionary tale” meant to strike fear; she advised Filipino journalists to protect their rights and keep fighting for the truth.
At a time where the government seems more interested to address “issues” other than the ongoing pandemic, we must fight to protect the freedom of the press. The free press provides accurate information that will guide ordinary citizens to make important decisions. How would we know the dangers of COVID-19 if we didn’t have reports of its status in different areas? How would we know what policies could benefit our communities? Without the free press, we wouldn’t know what our leaders are doing and those in power could get away with anything they want.
The whole ordeal is an attack on people who are simply reporting the truth. As documented in the 2020 Sundance Festival film “A Thousand Cuts”, President Duterte tried to bring down the news site several times ever since it began reporting about his administration. The film was available online for 24 hours from June 12 to June 13 and angered several viewers over the moves that the government did to stifle the press. The documentary followed Ressa and other reporters from the Rappler team highlighting their fight for press freedom under the current administration. In the film, Ressa reiterated a quote from an Inquirer report on a protest sign inspired by a Holocaust poem: “First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.” Ressa and Santos are the first two journalists in the Philippines to be convicted for cyber libel. We hope this serves as a wake-up call for everyone to remain vigilant and remember that the silencing of the free press could mean that anyone’s voice could be silenced next, including yours.