The government had enough "leeway" to interpret the cyber libel law in favor of Rappler's Maria Ressa given its limited precedent but instead opted for prosecution, an official of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) said Thursday.
Ressa, whose news site has repeatedly clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte, was arrested Wednesday in connection with a 2012 Rappler article that its subject, businessman Wildredo Keng, claimed was "defamatory." She was freed Thursday after posting P100,000 bail.
But according to IBP national president Abdiel Dan Fajardo, the Department of Justice (DOJ) could have avoided the legal battle had it dismissed the case by applying the doctrine of non-retroactivity of laws.
"Of course they can say that libel on the internet has not been contemplated yet on the [revised penal code]... which means to say that the government has sufficient leeway by which to resolve this in favor of the respondent and in favor of dismissal," Fajardo said in an interview with ANC.
"If we apply the constitution — and no law or regulation can override the constitution for as long as that exists — if we apply the non-retroactivity of penal laws, the law that should have been applied is the revised penal code," the lawyer added.
Article 90 of the Revised Penal Code states that the "crime of libel or other similar offenses shall prescribe in one year."
Ressa's camp had repeatedly argued that the 1-year prescription had already lapsed when Keng filed the case in 2017.
But the DOJ avoided the prohibition by applying a different prescriptive period, which is applicable to special laws. In its resolution, DOJ said that the 1-year prescriptive period for filing a case applies only to libel, not cyber libel.
"They want to prosecute meaning they want to bring this case to court," said Fajardo.
Rappler has earned the ire of Duterte as he perceived the news website to be too critical of his administration.
Ressa said that they will not be intimidated and will "continue to tell the truth."
Rappler is facing a separate tax suit, and its incorporation certificate was revoked in 2018 for allegedly violating the constitutional restriction on foreign ownership of mass media.