MANILA - A Manila court on Monday found acclaimed journalist Maria Ressa guilty of cyber libel over an article tagging a businessman to alleged illegal activities.
Ressa, together with former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos, Jr., face between 6 months and 1 day to 6 years in jail, in a decision handed down by Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa.
They are also ordered to pay P200,000 in moral damages and P200,000 in exemplary damages.
The conviction stemmed from a May 2012 article published on Rappler which claimed that then-Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was then facing an impeachment trial, had been using luxury vehicles belonging to several personalities.
These personalities allegedly included businessman Wilfredo Keng whom the article described as having a "shady past," citing an intelligence report and a prior article published on the Philippine Star.
In the article, Keng denied that Corona used his vehicle but he would later on claim that his side was never sought about the alleged illegal activities and that Rappler refused to publish his side despite presenting evidence clearing his name.
The decision found Santos liable as author of the article and Ressa as executive editor of Rappler.
In finding Ressa liable despite testimony of Rappler Investigative head Chay Hofileña that she was not involved in day-to-day operations, the court said neither a publisher nor editor can disclaim liability for libelous articles and the Supreme Court has ruled proof of participation is not needed when accused has already been identified to be the editor.
The court said Ressa's title as "executive editor" did not excuse her from liability, as she is also business manager or chief executive officer of Rappler.
"To the mind of the Court, Rappler's scheme of not using the term 'editor-in-chief' in its organizational structure is a clever ruse to avoid liability of the officers of a news organization who can be held responsible for libel under Article 360 of the Revised Penal Code, in relation to RA 10175. They used the nomenclature "executive editor" instead, although clearly the nature of the functions she discharges is still that of an editor as contemplated by law," it said.
Ressa said an executive editor was not an EIC.
But the court absolved Rappler from corporate liability.
NOT PRESCRIBED, THERE WAS REPUBLICATION
The case has been controversial from the onset because the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which punishes cyber libel, was not enacted until September 2012 or 4 months after the May 2012 article was published.
But the prosecution claimed the article was republished in February 2014, making it fall under the Cybercrime Law.
And because the penalty for cyber libel increased to up to 8 years, the period for filing the case also increased from 1 year for ordinary libel under the Revised Penal Code to 12 years under the Cybercrime law
Keng filed his complaint with the NBI only in 2017.
The Manila court agreed with the prosecution that the crime has not prescribed because prescriptive period for cyber libel is 12 years.
It also found there was republication to merit a separate case under the Cybercrime law. The defense had said there was no substantial change as only a typographical error was corrected -- from evation to evasion. But the court said the accused failed to prove this because the only version that could be found online is the 2014 version.
DEFAMATORY AND MALICIOUS
Judge Estacio-Montesa also ruled there were defamatory remarks and that there was malice in the publication of the article -- both essential elements of libel.
She said the Rappler article imputed several crimes against Keng such as human trafficking, drug smuggling, murder, smuggling of fake cigarettes and granting special investors residence visas to Chinese nationals for a fee.
"The article has created in the minds of ordinary readers that Keng has a disgraceful reputation," she said, citing the testimony of Keng's witness.
Keng's camp also presented certifications from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and the National Bureau of Investigation clearing Keng's name.
The court said malice is presumed, as Keng is a private citizen, and the defense failed to show justifiable reason for the defamatory statements.
It concluded that Santos did not verify with any law enforcement agency whether Keng was actually involved in the allegations and Rappler did not publish any clarificatory article despite attempts by Keng to have the article corrected.
"They did not verify the veracity of these alleged reports at all. They just simply published them as news in their online publication in reckless disregard of whether they are false or not and with sheer indifference of its impact upon the reputation of Keng," the court said.
Keng's camp claimed 50 messages were sent between them and Rappler.
Defense did not present Ressa nor Santos as witnesses.
"The right to free speech and freedom of the press cannot and should not be used as shield against accountability," the court said.
"The exercise of a freedom should and must be used with due regard to the freedom of others. As Nelson Mandela said, 'for to be free is not merely to cast of one's chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,'" it added.
Ressa's and Santos' lawyer Theodore Te said they would study their options which includes filing a motion for reconsideration with the same court or filing an appeal with the Court of Appeals within 15 days.