MANILA — A judge handling Maria Ressa’s second cyber libel case has inhibited from the case after receiving a death threat through the court’s email.
Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 147 Acting Presiding Judge Maria Amifaith Fider-Reyes in an order dated Tuesday, January 5, disqualified herself from the case citing a December 4 email from email address email@example.com threatening her life if she doesn’t junk the charge filed by property developer Wilfredo Keng against Ressa.
“Ito po ah, nakikiusap ako, sana mapagbigyan niyo ako, wag na tayong humantong sa di maganda. Pakibasura naman po ang inihaing kaso ng mga Keng kay Ressa, kung tutuusin moot nay an at binasura na din ng NBI noon. Ang tagal na din ng article nay an wala bas yang karapatan magpahayag ng saloobin niya?,” the email said.
“Please ngayon lang. Kasi kung hindi patawad po talaga. Ngayon pa lang ako makakapatay ng tao, hahagilapin ko kayo. Salamat po,” it added.
The judge received another email on December 24 after she granted Ressa’s plea to travel to visit her ailing mother.
“Maraming salamat po sa pag allow ninyo kay Maria makapag travel. Relief na din po yon para sa kaniya. Maraming salamat po at Merry Christmas,” it said.
Ressa eventually failed to leave the country after the Court of Appeals refused to grant her permission, despite 4 other courts, including the Makati court, allowing her to fly to the United States.
Fider-Reyes cited a provision in the Rules of Court which allows judges to inhibit from sitting in a case for “just or valid reasons.”
“To avoid the impression that the decisions of this Judge are influenced or affected by the correspondence received from this e-mail address, the Judge finds just reasons to inhibit from this case,” she said.
She also “severely reprimanded for the lack of respect to the judicial processes” whoever was behind the emails.
In a statement to the media, Ressa expressed doubt the emails came from her supporter.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I would never condone nor tolerate attempts to manipulate the rule of law. We call it out every day despite the impunity we see around us,” she said.
“Having received hate messages and death threats myself, I condemn anyone who would do this and empathize with those who have to deal with it,” she added.
Rappler reported Ressa “does not know” him and that the email address was not in Rappler’s databases or lists of supporters in its network.
Ressa’s lawyer, former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te from the Free Legal Assistance Group, urged the high court to take the threat seriously.
“While voluntary inhibition is entirely up to the judge and I would not want to second guess her reasons for doing so, perhaps the judge could have, before inhibiting, asked the SC to investigate the source of the threat. This goes beyond the case itself because, if the SC does not act, it may end up allowing an end run towards inhibition through unverifiable threats,” he said.
“Fifty-four lawyers, including prosecutors and judges, have been killed since 2016. And so the SC should take such threats seriously by investigating if these are legitimate or simply ploys to force an inhibition,” he added.
Ressa is facing 8 other cases including allegations of tax evasion, violating the Anti-Dummy Law and the Securities Regulation Code, aside from her appeal on her conviction for the 1st cyber libel case filed by Keng.
The second cyber libel charge accused Ressa of defaming Keng in sharing screenshots of a 2002 Philippine Star article linking Keng to the killing of a Manila councilor and other illegal activities. That article was cited by Rappler in its 2012 article on Keng.
Ressa posted the tweet 3 days after her arrest for the first cyber libel case in February 2019 over which she and former Rappler writer/researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. were convicted of cyber libel in June last year.