MANILA (UPDATE) - Opposition senators on Monday urged Filipinos to "speak out" against attacks on free press and journalists after Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher Rey Santos were convicted of cyber libel.
"Attacks" on journalists and the "silencing of critics" in the Philippines have been "going on for three years now," Sen. Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan said in a statement after the verdict.
"Under the current political atmosphere of repression and authoritarianism, it would have been a surprise if Maria Ressa and Reynaldo [Santos] were acquitted," he said.
"Unless we stand up, speak out, and vigorously oppose the tyranny in our midst, their conviction will not be the last, he said.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said Ressa and Santos' conviction was meant to "send a chilling message" to Filipinos that government critics can be shut down and silenced.
"This year alone and while we're responding to a global pandemic, we have witnessed the shutdown of a far-reaching media institution and the weaponization of the law against a journalist doing unbiased reporting on extrajudicial killings in the country," she said referring to ABS-CBN's shutdown and Ressa's conviction.
"The attacks on the free press & journalists are a danger to our democracy & to us Filipinos... Takot sila, kaya nila tayo pinapatahimik (They are scared that's why they want to silence us)," the opposition senator said.
Detained Sen. Leila de Lima called the court ruling "another demonstration of the Duterte government's weaponization of law against those who dare speak truth to power."
"They will not stop at going after critics and human rights defenders. To them, journalists too must be silenced. But we will not allow it," said De Lima, a staunch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been detained on drug charges since February 2017.
"I urge everyone to speak out. Dumarami tayo (We are increasing). We are complicit if we are silent," Hontiveros said.
Ressa and Santos were convicted over a 2012 article that allegedly defamed businessman Wilfredo Keng, which cited intelligence reports that he was involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling.
ABS-CBN, the Philippines' largest broadcast company, was pulled off the air on May 5, 2020, even while its franchise renewal documents were still being discussed in Congress.
President Rodrigo Duterte earlier lashed out at both news companies: Rappler for allegedly peddling fake news, and ABS-CBN for allegedly not airing some of his campaign advertisements during the 2016 presidential campaign.
ABS-CBN's franchise renewal is still being considered in the House of Representatives, while Ressa and Santos were given 15 days to file an appeal for their conviction.
"Under our judicial system, due process does not end with a guilty verdict rendered by a regional trial court," Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who is part of the Senate majority bloc, said in a text message to reporters when asked for comment.
"This is a guaranteed right of every Filipino under our existing laws," he said, but noted that he is in no position to "either denounce or hail the court’s decision."