‘It just doesn’t stop’: Maria Ressa fights off 2nd cyber libel complaint

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 30 2020 08:40 PM

MANILA -- Maria Ressa on Thursday moved to dismiss a new cyber libel complaint against her filed by the same businessman who secured a conviction in a Manila court in June.

In her counter-affidavit submitted before the Makati City Prosecutor's Office, Ressa said there was nothing defamatory nor libelous in her February 16, 2019, tweet where she shared screenshots of a 2002 Philippine Star article tagging property developer Wilfredo Keng to the murder of a councilor in Manila.

Neither is it a case of cyber libel, she added.

"[I]t is respectfully submitted that the immediate dismissal of Mr. Keng's Complaint-Affidavit for utter lack of merit is warranted," Ressa argued.

NOT DEFAMATORY, NOT LIBELOUS

Responding to queries, Ressa had posted the following tweet three days after her arrest on February 13, 2019 for the first cyber libel case:

"Here's the 2002 article on the 'private businessman' who filed the cyberlibel case, which was thrown out by the NBI then revived by the DOJ. #HoldtheLine."

The Philippine Star article was mentioned in Rappler's May 2012 article that led to Ressa's and Rappler former writer-researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr.'s conviction -- sentenced to up to 6 years in jail for defaming Keng.

The Philippine Star's website took the article down following threat of legal action from the Keng camp.

Ressa also received a similar demand to take down her tweet and apologize but, while she initially thought of deleting it, she wrote off a letter rejecting the request, invoking freedom of expression.

For Keng, the tweet was a different publication and could make her liable for a separate offense.

But Ressa said the tweet was "straightforward and informative" and involved issues of public interest -- press freedom regarding her arrest and the ambush of a former government official with respect to the article she shared.

For an article to be libelous, the law requires that the defamatory statements published must be malicious and makes the victim identifiable.

"Notwithstanding the sweeping allegation that I should be held liable for violation of cyber libel, Mr. Keng's Complaint-Affidavit fails to point to any libelous statement that I made," she said.

Ressa also rejected Keng's position that the fact that PhilStar.com took down the article is evidence that the article is false.

"Philippine Star did not take down the article because it was false. Philstar.com's statement itself makes clear that it chose to take a prudent path 'after the camp of Mr. Wilfredo Keng raised the possibility of legal action,'" she said.

SHARING IS NOT CYBER LIBEL

Ressa insisted her tweet is not covered by cyber libel, because she merely "shared" the article in response to queries for more information about her arrest, invoking the Supreme Court ruling in Disini vs. Secretary of Justice, a 2014 case that upheld the constitutionality of cyber libel but struck down "aiding or abetting" it.

"Linking," "sharing" or "commenting" on a post, the Supreme Court said, does not make it libelous "for he merely expresses agreement with the statement...He still is not the author."

Ressa also said the sharing of the Philippine Star article does not constitute "publication" or "republication," which gives rise to a separate cyber libel complaint.

"That's the strange thing...The complaint itself filed by Mr. Keng basically ignores the jurisprudence on the matter," Ressa's lawyer, former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te of the Free Legal Assistance Group, pointed out in an online press conference Thursday afternoon.

Te warned that, if the complaint eventually leads to the filing of a new cyber libel case against Ressa, many other people who shared the article and Ressa's tweet could face similar charges.

"Then it's really dangerous for anyone now on social media who shares anything, whatsoever. And so basically, that would be a reversal of Disini. And so that's where the danger comes in," he said.

Reacting to Ressa's claims, Keng's lawyer, Atty. Ryan Cruz, said the 2002 article is "inherently libelous", and there should be no reason to share it on social media.

"The 2002 Philippine Star article is inherently libelous, as it maliciously suggests Mr. Keng was involved in the murder of Chika Go and other criminal activities. The article, which is 17 years old when tweeted by Ms. Ressa, has no current relevance. Philippine Star, the original publisher, has even deemed it prudent to take it down, so we see no reason why it had to be tweeted, except to further malign Mr. Keng," Cruz said.

Cruz also said the Disini ruling does not apply to Ressa's case, as her tweet can be considered a new publication on a new platform.

"Her tweet is a new publication of a previously published libel, on a totally new platform -- Ms. Ressa's Twitter account. It was not a mere re-tweet, it was neither shared nor forwarded from another tweet. It was an original post," he explained.

IT JUST DOESN'T STOP

Reflecting on the slew of cases she had to face in a span of weeks, Ressa said, "It just doesn't stop."

Following her cyber libel conviction in June and the recent denial of her plea for reconsideration, Ressa pleaded not guilty to tax evasion at a Pasig court last week before subscribing to her counter-affidavit to the cyber libel complaint Wednesday. Te submitted her counter-affidavit Thursday.

Ressa, who is appealing her conviction with the Court of Appeals, said this doesn't stop with her and Rappler.

"What we are seeing right now I think is the codification into law of the random abuses that have happened in the last 4 years. And I would include there...how the very processes of democracy are being turned against it, " she said, mentioning the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the passage of the Anti-Terror law and a "captured legislature."

"This is all part of that -- the law and processes of democracy are being used to consolidate control," she added.

GLIMMER OF HOPE

But Te sees a glimmer of hope with what's happening, particularly the recent acquittal by the Court of Appeals of ABS-CBN anchor Ted Failon over a libel case filed by now-Sen. Francis Tolentino, which could improve the chances of their conviction appeal.

The CA placed a high premium on press freedom in the decision, ruling that in libel cases involving public officials in the performance of their functions and public figures, the charge should allege that the story published was either a "known lie" or a "calculated" or "reckless falsehood."

It gave journalists leeway for error, inaccuracy, falsity, honest mistakes, imperfection in the choice of language, gross or extreme negligence.
 

While the Failon ruling involved a public official with less expectations of privacy, Te expressed confidence the courts will consider Keng a "public figure." 

"Even if the person is a private figure but is involved in something that is relevant to the public, then he becomes a public figure," he said.

The Manila court that convicted Ressa said Keng is a private figure entitled to presumption of malice.

Considering him a public figure would mean he would have to prove that the Rappler article was written and published with actual malice -- meaning knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true.

"It's a good time, as any, for the Judiciary to assert that the people can still trust it to be a neutral arbiter, that is not 'captured' as it were," he added.