Group decries 'abusive attacks' vs judiciary over Ressa conviction

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 22 2020 03:11 PM | Updated as of Jun 22 2020 09:56 PM

MANILA - A judges' group on Monday called out "abusive attacks" against courts, judges and the judiciary following criticisms over Maria Ressa's conviction by a Manila court last week.

In a statement, the Philippine Judges Association noted "virulent attacks from the public" in the past several days, some of which supposedly suggested that the "rule of law in the Philippines is broken and democracy is under threat."

"The attacks on the judiciary are so vicious that they may lead to the public losing faith and respect in our judicial system," the statement, signed by PJA president Marikina Judge Felix Reyes, said.

The statement did not mention the June 15 ruling by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46, convicting Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyber libel over a 2012 article involving property developer Wilfredo Keng.

But in a text message, Reyes confirmed to ABS-CBN News that the statement was in response to criticisms online brought about by Estacio-Montesa's decision, which ruled that a complainant has 12 years to file a cyber libel case compared to the 1-year prescriptive period for libel.

The decision also considered a February 2014 update on the 2012 Rappler article a "republication" to make it fall under the Cybercrime Prevention Act that was enacted only in September 2012. Rappler, Ressa and Santos contend the change was not substantial as it only corrected the misspelled word of "evation" to "evasion."

Photos of Estacio-Montesa surfaced online a few hours after the release of the ruling, with some posts portraying her as a "villain of democracy." Some social media users balked at her use of a quote from Nelson Mandela to convict Ressa.

There were also posts mentioning the appointment in April this year of Estacio-Montesa's husband as a Makati court judge and the couple's alleged closeness to Court Administrator Midas Marquez, who had served under the late ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona. The Rappler article on Keng claimed Corona had a penchant for using luxury vehicles owned by personalities like Keng. 

ABS-CBN News has sought Marquez' side but he has yet to issue a statement as of press time.

Other posts falsely claimed the judge has been appointed to the Supreme Court by President Rodrigo Duterte. Estacio-Montesa did not apply and was not included in the shortlist of nominees submitted by the Judicial and Bar Council to Duterte to replace retired SC Associate Justice Andres Reyes, Jr.

But there were also posts defending the judge, highlighting her 8-year experience in the judiciary and her expertise on cybercrime and electronic evidence.

Estacio-Montesa, who is a PJA member as all RTC judges in the country are, has not issued any statement to address some of the criticisms and allegations.

The PJA said it was compelled to speak out to prevent erosion of trust in the judicial system.

"Everyone is reminded that personal attacks, criticisms laden with political threats, those that misrepresent and distort the nature and context of judicial decisions, those that are misleading or without factual or legal basis, and those that blame the judges for the ills of society, damage the integrity of the judiciary and threaten the doctrine of judicial independence," its statement said.

"These attacks do a grave disservice to the principle of an independent judiciary and mislead the public as to the role of judges in a constitutional democracy, shaking the very foundation of our democratic government," it added, quoting a Supreme Court administrative ruling.

The PJA said the public must understand how the courts work -- courts settle controversies on the basis of facts presented through evidence and the application of the law to these facts. And when a party loses, there are remedies.

"This kind of system makes people rely upon our courts with substantial certainty; it encourages the resolution of disputes in courtrooms rather than on the streets," it said.

"Abusive criticisms and unfounded innuendos hurled against courts and judges erode the public's trust and confidence on the very institution tasked to protect the people's rights."

Reacting to the PJA statement, veteran journalist and former National Union of Journalists of the Philippines chair Inday Espina Varona wrote on Twitter: "Disagreeing [with] a decision is not abuse (though am sure there were abusive posts). Citing possible conflict of interest is a matter of public good. Left unchecked, that could erode faith on the judiciary."