Court postpones arraignment of Rappler chief Ressa, reporter on 3rd cyber libel case

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 04 2021 11:30 AM | Updated as of Feb 04 2021 04:00 PM

Court postpones arraignment of Rappler chief Ressa, reporter on 3rd cyber libel case 1
Rappler CEO and journalist Maria Ressa speaks during a press conference after receiving a guilty verdict on cyber libel by the Manila Regional Trial Court on June 15, 2020. Angie De Silva, ABS-CBN News/file

Arraignment reset to March 11

MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - A Manila court on Thursday granted the plea of Rappler chief Maria Ressa and reporter Rambo Talabong to postpone their arraignment due to a pending motion to quash a cyber libel case over an article alleging "thesis for sale" at the De La Salle University-College of St. Benilde.

Judge Maria Victoria Soriano-Villadolid granted their plea and tentatively set the next hearing on March 11, according to the respondents' lawyer Theodore Te.

In a motion to quash filed on February 1, Ressa and Talabong questioned the jurisdiction of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 24 because the information or the criminal charge failed to specify details regarding venue. 

They also alleged the facts charged do not constitute an offense.

Benilde professor Ariel Pineda filed the case last year, accusing Talabong of portraying him as a “corrupt professor” in the investigative report published in January 2020.

The article reported on a complaint alleging that Pineda, through a middleman, supposedly allowed students to pass their thesis subject in exchange for P20,000.

Talabong said he spent weeks gathering information and trying to be fair but Pineda did not give his side.

Both Ressa and Talabong have posted P30,000 bail last month.

NO DEFAMATORY STATEMENT

In their motion to quash, the 2 journalists insisted there was nothing defamatory in the report.

“Read in its totality and within the proper context, the article is not defamatory as it is shown to be simply a report of a pending disciplinary complaint lodged before the College of Saint Benilde,” they said.

“The nine portions quoted are not defamatory and are not maliciously written. They are direct quotes from the complaint or statements attributable to a source, whether the source be a person or a document. As such, these extracted portions from the article cannot serve as basis for the court to conclude that there is prima facie basis for cyber libel,” they added.

The 9 portions included quotes from a conversation between 2 students who said it was them who approached Pineda to pay for their passing the thesis subject. These were also included in the complaint against Pineda filed with school authorities.

Other quotes even “complimented” Pineda as a “well-known” professor who “knew what he was talking about” and communicated “well” to his students, they said.

“Under the law, it would fall under fair comment, it would fall under privilege as well. Because if it is simply a factual report with no commentary on the part of the reporter or journalist, then that should fall under that,” Te told reporters following a hearing on Thursday.

NO INVOLVEMENT IN PUBLICATION

Ressa, who is being charged in her capacity as then-executive editor of Rappler, said in the motion that there were no allegations about her involvement in the publication, editing or authorship of the supposedly libelous article. 

She has since relinquished this role but it was the same role that got her convicted in June 2020 for cyber libel in the case filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng, along with former researcher and writer Reynaldo Santos, Jr. She has appealed the verdict.

COURT HAS NO JURISDICTION

Ressa and Talabong also relied on a procedural rule that in criminal cases, venue is jurisdictional making it necessary to allege “where the offense was committed or where any of its essential ingredients occured.”

In libel cases, a case may be filed where the libelous article was printed and first published or where any of the offended parties actually resides at the time the offense was committed — both of which were not indicated in the criminal charge, according to their motion.

“The Information, supra, does not state: (a) the place of first publication, and (b) the residence of the parties. For this reason, it is fatally and irremediably deficient and fails to vest jurisdiction on the court,” it said, noting a Supreme Court 2010 ruling which did not recognize the place of accessing a website for the purpose of determining the venue of a libel case.

NOBEL PEACE PRIZE NOMINATION

Ressa has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021, along with media groups Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.

“It’s so hard to think about it because there’s too much for journalists to do in the Philippines, right?,” she said before enumerating a list of journalists arrested and detained in the Philippines.

“I think the nomination is not even so much about what we do because all we are doing is our job but more where the government has gone — that it has made it difficult for us to do our jobs…It doesn’t matter because we’re gonna continue doing our jobs, just as I know you are. This is the time that matters,” she added.

In a tweet prior to the hearing, Ressa noted that this was the first time a court has issued an arrest warrant against a Rappler reporter and the 10th against her in less than 2 years.

She faced a tax case hearing on Wednesday and is set to appear at another cyber libel hearing Friday.

“It is a war of attrition, but we have unlimited energy and nothing will stop us from doing our jobs,” she tweeted.

Talabong, on the other hand, called for an end to penalizing libel.

“I’ve only been a journalist for three years but I’ve already faced two cyber libel complaints. That’s too, too much. We have to decriminalize libel because journalists are so prosecuted in the Philippines,” he told reporters after the hearing.

The first cyber libel complaint he faced, filed by a Cabinet official, was dismissed at the prosecutor level.