International community enraged by the Philippines cyber-libel verdict against Rappler 

Amid widespread outrage at the guilty verdict handed to Maria Ressa, co-founder of the independent news website Rappler, and its writer, Reynaldo Santos Jr, many international civil society organizations have called for the case to be dismissed.

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

On 14 June Ressa and Santos received “indeterminate sentences” of 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.  They were found guilty of libelling a businessman under the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

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.

In addition to this case, Ressa and her colleagues face seven other cases in various courts for which she has been arrested and bailed.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) published a statement that the legal cases filed against Ressa, Santos and the Rappler “amount to a serious attack on media freedom, which affects the work of all journalists in the country”.

“The FCCT opposes criminal defamation in principle. … Criminal defamation is widely misused in countries like Thailand, where it can be exploited to blackmail defendants into paying large out-of-court settlements or to silence political critics and human rights defenders. … Maria Ressa should be allowed to go free to continue holding those in power in the Philippines to account.” reads the FCCT statement.

The International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) published a statement demanding justice for Maria Ressa.

“This baseless conviction is another deliberate attempt by the Philippine government to silence Ressa’s voice. … Like so many other women journalists, Ressa faces persistent online harassment for her coverage. On top of her legal battle, these attacks, waged by pro-Duterte troll armies, are further attempts to silence Ressa’s work and eliminate all criticism of the Duterte regime,” states the IWMF.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a statement claiming “This conviction of Ressa and Santos is the latest chapter in the systematic judicial harassment to which they have been subjected by various government agencies for more than two years. Either directly or through Ressa, the website is facing ten other similar complaints, each as baseless as the other, with the aim of intimidating its journalists.”

After falling seven places since 2017, the Philippines is ranked 136th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

“By passing this extremely harsh sentence at the end of utterly Kafkaesque proceedings, the Philippine justice system has demonstrated a complete lack of independence from the executive,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“This sentence bears the malevolent mark of President Duterte and his desire, by targeting Rappler and the figure of Maria Ressa, to eliminate all criticism whatever the cost. We urge Manila’s judges to restore a semblance of credibility to the Philippine judicial system by overturning this conviction on appeal.”

An Amnesty International (AI) statement calls for the Philippine authorities to overturn the conviction against Ressa and Santos.

“This verdict is a sham and should be quashed. Ressa, Santos and the Rappler team are being singled out for their critical reporting of the Duterte administration, including ongoing human rights violations in the Philippines. The accusations against them are political, the prosecution was politically-motivated, and the sentence is nothing but political.” said Nicholas Bequelin, AI Asia-Pacific Regional Director.

“Ressa and her team have become global icons for press freedom after President Duterte himself has repeatedly singled them out for attack, intimidation and harassment. They face a long battle ahead, with several more politically motivated charges awaiting trial.”

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) claims that the convictions mark a “devastating day for journalism … in a case that is which widely seen as a crackdown on independent journalism in the Philippines.”

“This is a miscarriage of justice," said ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan. “Maria is facing a bevy of charges designed to silence her and Rappler. If journalists are muzzled, democracy itself is at stake. ICFJ condemns Maria's conviction and calls for all other charges against her to be dropped.”

The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN)of which Prachatai is a member, is “outrage and alarmed” by the conviction and stated that it will closely monitor the case.

“Ms. Ressa is a journalist of unquestioned integrity, representing the best of her nation’s long tradition of investigative reporting. This politically motivated and legally irregular prosecution represents an attempt to silence independent Filipino journalists,” says the GIJN.