MANILA - The Manila court which convicted Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa and former writer-researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. of cyber libel in connection with an article about property developer Wilfredo Keng stood by its earlier ruling sentencing the two to up to 6 years in prison.
In a 13-page order dated July 24, Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa insisted, it was the defense that failed to present evidence to defend themselves.
She stressed the court can only decide based on the evidence presented by the parties.
"Under existing laws and rules of procedure parties are required to adduce and offer Evidence during the trial of the case in court. It is not presented and adduced in front of media platforms especially after the trial of the case has been concluded," the judge said.
"Not only does this undermine the integrity of the courts but it also gives the public a misconception on how cases are tried and heard by the courts of law," she added.
COURT: NOT ENOUGH DEFENSE EVIDENCE
Montesa faulted Ressa and Santos for not presenting enough evidence to prove that Keng is a public figure and that only a typographical error was corrected when the May 2012 article was republished in February 2014.
The defense had insisted, Montesa was wrong in considering Keng as a private individual, a crucial finding which meant that the presumption of malice applies -- every defamatory statement is presumed to be malicious. The judge's ruling placed the burden on the defense to justify the publication.
The defense also said that since the 2014 article only changed the letter T to S in the word evasion, the change was not substantial to be considered a republication and make it fall under the Cybercrime Prevention Act which was enacted only in September 2012 or after the initial publication in May 2012.
But Montesa noted the argument about Keng being a public figure was not raised during trial and quoted a portion of Ressa and Santos' lawyer former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te's cross-examination of Keng.
"In fact the cross-examination on Keng only made it clear that he is indeed a private person since defense was not able to introduce evidence that would make the court believe that Keng is a public figure...," she said.
Montesa also dismissed the testimony of Rappler Investigative Head Chay Hofileña about the typographical citing the absence of documentary evidence.
"It is worth emphasizing that Hofileña, during her testimony, did not identify the typographical error. Neither did the defense adduce additional evidence nor propound additional questions to identify and establish with particularity the typographical error in the subject article which was allegedly corrected," the judge said.
"In fact the court could not even make a reasonable comparison between the original and updated publication considering that the original publication was not adduced in evidence by the defense to show what has been updated or corrected," she explained.
Montesa went to the extent of disregarding Hofileña's testimony as hearsay because the defense supposedly failed to establish that she has personal knowledge about the error.
OFFENSE HAS NOT YET PRESCRIBED
The judge also defended her ruling that the cyber libel offense has not yet prescribed despite having been filed several years after the initial publication and the republication.
She cited Act No. 3326, a special law, which provides for a 12-year prescriptive period for offenses punishable beyond 6 years.
But in addition, she quoted an unpublished and unsigned resolution of a Supreme Court division imposing a longer period of 15 years.
Legal experts have pointed out, only a Supreme Court en banc ruling can be considered as precedent for succeeding cases.
Montesa did not explain which between 12 and 15 years is the prescriptive period for cyber libel except to say that the court cannot apply the 1-year prescriptive period.
Ressa and Santos had insisted, cyber libel is not a new offense but a different way of committing the same crime, thus, Art. 90 of the Revised Penal Code's 1-year prescriptive period should apply.
Montesa also insisted the law was not applied retroactively because although a temporary restraining order (TRO) was still in effect during the republication of the article, the TRO did not suspend the implementation of the law.
Montesa also brushed aside other issues lengthily discussed in Ressa and Santos' 132-page motion for partial reconsideration, some of which, she said, had already been discussed in her Decision in June.
On the issue of press freedom and the use of the strict scrutiny test in content-based regulation, she said this is inapplicable because the Supreme Court has ruled cyber libel is constitutional.
Montesa also deemed as "futile" arguments about the report being "qualifiedly privileged communication" because the prosecution had supposedly already established malice: "...qualifiedly privileged communications merely prevent the presumption of malice from attaching to a defamatory imputation."
She considered the testimony of the National Bureau of Investigation Legal Office which recommended the dismissal of the complaint as "not relevant and not binding" while she did not find "any compelling reason" to allow the intervention of United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye through an amicus brief.
Montesa also reiterated there was basis for imposing jailtime as penalty despite a Supreme Court circular which recommended imposing fines instead.
She said the circular applies only to libel cases, not cyber libel, and it did not remove imprisonment as a penalty.
Ressa and Santos intend to appeal the ruling.
Maria Ressa, Reynaldo Santos, Jr., Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, Manila RTC Br. 46, cyber libel, Wilfredo Keng, prescription, republication, Rappler, press freedom, malice