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Rappler Verdict a Blow to Media Freedom, says HRW

The conviction of a prominent journalist for criminal libel is a devastating blow to media freedom in the Philippines, Human Rights Watch said today.

Maria Ressa on stage as keynote speaker of the 2019 Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Hamburg, Germany (Photo by Nick Jaussi)

On June 15, 2020, a Manila court issued a guilty verdict for Maria Ressa, the founder and executive editor of the news website Rappler, and a Rappler researcher, Reynaldo Santos Jr.

Rappler reported that Ressa and Santos received an “indeterminate sentence,” with a minimum of six months and one day and a maximum of six years, and fines of P200,000 (US$4,000) in moral damages and another P200,000 in exemplary damages.

The verdict stemmed from one of several cases that the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte instigated to stifle Rappler’s critical reporting on the government, particularly its murderous “war on drugs,” which has killed tens of thousands of people since July 2016. In addition to this case, Ressa and her colleagues face seven other cases in various courts for which she was arrested and detained, and posted bail.

“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. “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.”

In May 2012, Rappler published an article accusing then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona of impropriety for using an SUV owned by a businessman. The article predated the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which includes the crime of libel. In February 2014, Rappler corrected a typo in the story, changing “evation” to “evasion,” thus technically updating the story on the website.

The businessman, Wilfredo Keng, used this “re-publication” as a legal basis to claim the story was covered by the Cybercrime Prevent Act, and filed a criminal libel case against Rappler in October 2017. Duterte’s Justice Department rushed to support the prosecution’s assertion that updating the story constituted “continuous publication,” and recommended that charges be filed against Ressa and Santos. In February 2019, the court issued arrest warrants against them.

The Duterte administration in this and other cases has demonstrated its determination to intimidate and shut down the Rappler website. Ressa and other Rappler journalists suffered a withering online campaign using what Ressa called the “weaponization of the internet” against critical media and citizens. Duterte banned Rappler’s reporters from covering the presidential palace.

The campaign against Rappler is widely seen as retaliation for the website’s reporting on Duterte’s “war on drugs,” which has included in-depth reporting on extrajudicial killings committed by police and police-linked “death squads.” Human Rights Watch’s own reports have corroborated Rappler’s findings. In May 2020, the government shut down ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast network, which had also been critical of the Duterte administration.

The campaign against Rappler occurs in the context of worsening media freedom and freedom of expression in the Philippines. Journalists from other media groups have suffered intimidation and attacks online and offline. Recently, the government began targeting social media users who posted comments critical of the government, mainly on Facebook. The government has investigated dozens of social media users and arrested several for violating the country’s “fake news” regulations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The government should reverse this alarming affront to justice and quash the convictions of Rappler’s Ressa and Santos,” Robertson said. “The prosecution was not just an attack on these individual journalists, but also a frontal assault on freedom of the press which is critical to protect and preserve Philippines democracy.”

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