'Cautionary tale': Rappler's Ressa tells Filipinos to protect their rights

Gillan Ropero and Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 15 2020 10:15 AM | Updated as of Jun 15 2020 11:11 AM

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa is seen at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) before posting bail in Manila on February 14, 2019. - Ressa was freed on bail on February 14 following an arrest that sparked international censure and allegations she is being targeted over her news site's criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte. Noel Celis, AFP

MANILA - Rappler chief Maria Ressa, who was convicted of cyber libel on Monday, urged Filipinos to guard their rights, saying her plight was a "cautionary tale" that is meant to strike fear.

Unless Filipinos "challenge a brazen move to try to roll back the rights guaranteed in the constitution, we will lose them," said Ressa after the verdict was read in closed-door proceedings.

"I appeal to you, the journalists in room, the Filipinos who are listening, to protect your rights, we’re meant to be a cautionary tale, we are meant to make you afraid. I appeal again, Don’t be afraid," she told reporters.

Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. were found guilty of defaming businessman Wilfredo Keng in a May 2012 article.

Ressa, who Time magazine named as a Person of the Year in 2018, cited the "unthinkable" shutdown of ABS-CBN Corp. last month and the anti-terror bill which awaits President Rodrigo Duterte's signature.

"Sa mga Pilipinong nanonood po, hindi lang po ito tungkol sa amin. Tungkol po ito sa inyo because freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen," she said.

(To Filipinos who are watching, this is not just about us, it's also about you because freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen.)

"Pag wala pong katotohanan, pag hindi po namin mapigil (if there's no truth, if we can't stop)—if we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything. If we can’t do our jobs, then your right will be lost."

Ressa said the Manila court's decision was "devastating" but that her camp would "keep fighting."

"We're going to aim to be better, stronger. Investigative journalism should continue. We are at a precipice. If we fall over, we are no longer a democracy," she said.

Rappler and Ressa are also facing charges of tax fraud, violation of the Securities Regulation Code and the Anti-Dummy Law among others.

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Rappler's article predated the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which includes the crime of libel. In 2014, Rappler corrected a typo in the story, changing"evation" to "evasion," thus technically updating the story on the website. 

Keng used this “re-publication” as a legal basis to claim the story was covered by the Cybercrime Prevent Act, and filed a criminal libel case against Rappler in October 2017. 

When the constitutionality of the Cybercrime law was affirmed, the Supreme Court ruled it was not a new crime, Rappler lawyer Theodore Te earlier said. The prescriptive period -- or the time in which one can be sued, should be the same as that of ordinary libel or 1 year, he said. 

But the justice department said that since the penalty for cyberlibel was increased up to 8 years, the prescriptive period also increased to 12 years. 

This same period of liability will apply to social media posts of ordinary Filipinos, said Ressa. 

"Those are things we need to look at because that's a death by a thousand cuts of your rights — and mine. We have to fight," she said. 

"Today's verdict sets a dangerous precedent not only for journalists but for everyone online... Today marks diminished freedom and more threats to democratic rights supposedly guaranteed by Philippine Constitution, especially in the context of looming anti-terror law," added Rappler. 

Ressa, who did not write the 2012 story on Keng, was allowed to remain free on bail pending a possible appeal. The conviction carried a sentence of up to 6 years.

She said she had "very little involvement" in the day-to-day operations of Rappler and was responsible for its sales, technology and strategic direction as executive editor. She said this would be "the subject of an appeal" against her conviction. 

The 56-year-old journalist also urged government to "learn to work with journalists." 

"We're here to help make sure that our country runs better. We are not your enemy. Let us do our jobs," she said.