Maria Ressa's cyber libel conviction a 'devastating blow' to media freedom: HRW

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Posted at Jun 15 2020 10:26 AM | Updated as of Jun 15 2020 02:17 PM

Maria Ressa, Executive Editor and CEO of Philippine news website Rappler, goes through a disinfection booth as she arrives at Manila Regional Trial Court for the promulgation of her cyber-libel case, in Manila City Hall, Manila, June 15, 2020. Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

MANILA (2nd UPDATE) — Media freedom in the Philippines suffered a "devastating blow" with the conviction of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa for cyber libel over an 8-year-old article, international watchdog Human Rights Watch said Monday.

A Manila court sentenced Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. to at least 6 months up to 6 years in prison over the 2012 story that linked a businessman to alleged illegal activities. 

Rappler is known for its critical reporting of President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-narcotics drive. Ressa and her colleagues face 7 other cases in various courts for which she has been arrested, detained and posted bail, said HRW. 

The verdict against Ressa "is a devastating blow to media freedom in the Philippines," said the New York-based group. 

"The verdict against Maria Ressa highlights the ability of the Philippines’ abusive leader to manipulate the laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices whatever the ultimate cost to the country," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW. 

"The Rappler case will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom."
 
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. 

Businessman Wilfredo 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. 

Journalists from other media groups have suffered intimidation and attacks online and offline. Recently, the government investigated dozens of social media users and arrested several for violating the country’s "fake news" regulations during the coronavirus pandemic, said HRW. 
 
“The government should reverse this alarming affront to justice and quash the convictions of Rappler’s Ressa and Santos,” Robertson said. “The prosecution was not just an attack on these individual journalists but also a frontal assault on freedom of the press that is critical to protect and preserve Philippines democracy.” 

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said the verdict on Monday “basically kills freedom of speech and of the press.”

“This is a dark day not only for independent Philippine media but for all Filipinos,” the group said. “But we will not be cowed. We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms.” 

Ressa's conviction is a "menacing blow to press freedom" in the country, according to 

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said it stands with Rappler and "all independent journalists."

"It’s a menacing blow to press freedom in the Philippines and adds a new weapon in a growing legal arsenal against constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in an Asian outpost of democracy," it said.

"FOCAP journalists will press on with their courageous, fair, accurate and independent journalism. We have fought to stay independent since the dark Martial Law days. We will fight on every time, threat after threat."

Ressa, a former CNN bureau chief and longtime journalist, created Rappler in 2012 with 3 female reporters who made names for themselves covering the People Power revolt that brought down President Ferdinand E. Marcos in the 1980s. They have described a political landscape in the Philippines that is tougher in some ways than the period under Marcos for journalists.

“To cut down press freedom in this way and to weaponize the law is a whole new level,” Ressa said. “It is something I haven’t seen since the days of Marcos. And to see it again is heartbreaking.” 

— With a report from Jason Gutierrez and Alexandra Stevenson, The New York Times