MANILA — Vice President Leni Robredo said Monday the cyber libel conviction of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa was a message for critics of the administration to "keep quiet."
The journalist, who Time magazine named as a Person of the Year in 2018, faces up to 6 years behind bars in the culmination of the case that stemmed from a 2012 article linking a businessman to alleged illegal activities.
"We must remember that this is merely the latest instance of law being utilized to muzzle our free press," Robredo, a lawyer, said in a statement.
"Silencing, harassing, and weaponizing law against the media sends a clear message to every dissenting voice: Keep quiet or you are next," she said.
Ressa, 56, and her news site Rappler have been the subject of a series of cases and probes after publishing stories critical of policies of the Duterte administration, including the war on drugs that has killed thousands.
"A threat to the freedom of even a single Filipino is a threat to all of our freedoms," said Robredo. "If the law and our government institutions can be brought to bear upon Ms. Ressa, then we should be wary of what this means to the freedoms of ordinary citizens."
The 2012 Rappler story, which Ressa did not write, linked businessman Wilfredo Keng to alleged illegal activities, citing an intelligence report and a prior article published on another news outfit. The article predated the Cybercrime Prevention Act, that includes the crime of libel.
In 2014, Rappler corrected a typo in the story, changing "evation" to "evasion." Keng used the “re-publication” as legal basis to claim the story was covered by the law, leading to the filing of formal complaint in October 2017.
Keng's lawyer, Melissa Andaya, has said that Rappler did not take her client's side and did not correct or take down the article even after he had given certifications from authorities against the news website's allegations.
In an interview on ANC, Andaya said the guilty verdict is not an issue of press freedom as her client was only asking for accountability and responsible journalism.
Ressa said the case concerned all Filipinos because "because freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen."
"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," she said.
Robredo, who described the conviction of Ressa and her agency's former staff as a "chilling development," said "it is incumbent upon the press, and every free Filipino, to hold fast to our courage and not be cowed into silence."
Amid the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, a free press is necessary "not only to ensure that our collective response is based on accurate information, but also to uphold truth-telling and the courage to speak it as vital cornerstones of our democracy," Robredo said.
Duterte's government has said the case is not politically motivated and that authorities must enforce the law, even against journalists.
In 2018, Duterte denounced Rappler as a "fake news outlet" and subsequently banned Ressa and her colleagues from his public engagements.
— With reports from Reuters and Agence France-Presse