TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The founder of Philippine news network Rappler, Maria Ressa, and reporter Reynaldo Santos were on Monday (June 15) convicted of online defamation and face six months to six years in prison.
Both Ressa and Santos are entitled to bail, but each has to pay P200,000 (US$3,972.45) in moral damages and another P200,000 in exemplary damages. The guilty verdicts were handed down by Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 and can still be appealed at the Supreme Court.
The verdict casts a shadow over press freedom in the Southeast Asian nation and comes at the end of an 8-year-old legal struggle between Rappler and businessman Wilfredo Keng. According to a 2012 Rappler article citing intelligence reports, Keng was involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling.
Five years later, Keng filed a cyber libel lawsuit against Rappler under the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which was passed four months after the offending article had been published. Since 2017, the two parties have been at loggerheads over whether the new law could be retroactive and how long its prescriptive period extends.
In March 2018, the Philippines' National Bureau of Investigation withdrew its previous statement that the one-year prescriptive period for the libel charge had already expired. It then claimed the libelous article could be treated as an ongoing crime as long as it remained online.
The libel trial began after the country's Department of Justice found an obscure law to extend the prescription period of libel from one to 12 years, Rappler said.
Ressa and Rappler have been a thorn in the side of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, as the news outlet has reported the extrajudicial executions of tens of thousands in the president's war on drugs. Moreover, media freedoms have been gravely eroded under the leadership of Duterte, who in 2016 issued a chilling threat: "Just because you're a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination."
The country currently ranks 136th out of 179 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
At a press conference after the verdict was announced, Ressa stated:
"I appeal to you, the journalists in this room, [and] the Filipinos who are listening, to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid, right? So I will appeal again! Don't be afraid. Because if you don't use your rights, you will lose them. If we don't challenge a brazen move to try to roll back the rights guaranteed in the constitution, we will lost them."