College prof desists from pursuing cyber libel case vs Ressa, Rappler reporter

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 12 2021 09:39 PM

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa
Rappler CEO Maria Ressa arrives at the Pasig Regional Trial Court on July 22, 2020. Jire Carreon, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA — A college professor who filed a cyber libel complaint against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and reporter Rambo Talabong has desisted from pursuing the case, citing “misappreciation of facts,” according to Ressa’s lawyer Ted Te.

“The RTC (regional trial court) of Manila, Branch 24 issued an order in open session last August 10 dismissing the case with prejudice against Rambo Talabong and Maria Ressa after the complainant Mr. Ariel Pineda submitted an affidavit of desistance, which he affirmed in open court,” he said in a statement released through Rappler. 

“Mr. Pineda stated that the filing of the case arose out of a misappreciation of facts and that he was no longer interested in pursuing the case against both Mr. Talabong and Ms. Ressa,” he added.

Pineda, a former professor at the College of St. Benilde, sued Ressa and Talabong in January this year over a story published in January 2020 alleging that, in exchange for P20,000, he supposedly allowed students to pass their thesis subject.

The Rappler report was based on a complaint that was being investigated by the College of St. Benilde (CSB). 

Te could not however disclose the nature of the agreement between Ressa, Talabong and Pineda.

“[B]ut one thing that resulted from the discussion was that Rappler would update the story with information that was obtained after the case was filed. The updated story was posted on August 10,” he told ABS-CBN News in response to a query.

In the update, Rappler said that it learned in July 2021 that the CSB had in fact dismissed the complaint in September 2020 due to “lack of evidence” as “no other enrolled students has ascertained the information stated in the complaint.”

“The college said the alleged bribery incidents were instead a part of the department’s effort to grant ‘honorarium’ and ‘gift certificates’ to thesis panelists,” the updated Rappler article said.

Talabong, who has always maintained he spent weeks reporting and making sure his story was fair, said Thursday he was “relieved that the case was dismissed.”

“I can finally focus more of my time working to produce more stories at this critical time in our country. I am extremely grateful to Rappler, our lawyers, and our readers for standing with me from the beginning,” he said.

Ressa welcomed the dismissal as a break from the slew of cases she is facing — from cyber libel to tax evasion — which she has claimed to be politically motivated.

“Another criminal case against me and our reporter has been dropped. It's a temporary relief, but the ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation against me and Rappler continues. These ridiculous cases remind us all of the importance of independent journalism holding power to account. Now we at Rappler can focus on what we do best - journalism,” she said in a statement released through her international lawyers at Doughty Street Chambers.

Amal Clooney said the dismissal of the case is a “vindication” which restores “faith in the rule of law.”

“Let’s hope that this sets a precedent for judges protecting freedom of the press in other cases as well,” she said.

“The dismissal of this baseless cyberlibel prosecution against Ms Ressa is a welcome chink of light in this otherwise dark picture. Now is the time for the international community to take robust, concrete action to ensure all other proceedings against Ms Ressa are halted, and the Philippines is held to account,” said her colleague Caoilfhionn Gallagher.

For Te, who handled all of Ressa’s three cyber libel cases, the case is an opportunity to reexamine the existing system which criminalizes libel.

“That the case was even filed against both Mr. Talabong and Ms. Ressa at the level of the investigating prosecutor however spotlights the danger to press freedom and freedom of expression that criminal cyberlibel poses. Perhaps it may be time to consider seriously taking a second look at the Cybercrime Protection Act of 2012, particularly its provisions on cyberlibel as a crime,” he said.

A Manila court in June last year convicted Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos, Jr. of cyber libel in connection with an article about businessman Wilfredo Keng which supposedly painted him as having a “disgraceful reputation” by linking him to some crimes.

Ressa maintained Keng is a public figure which should not benefit from the presumption of malice. 

The case is on appeal before the Court of Appeals.

Keng filed a second cyber libel case against Ressa over her tweet sharing screenshots of a Philippine Star article which was cited in Rappler’s report on Keng.

But Keng, in June this year, withdrew the case, choosing to focus on “helping out with the pandemic.”

Rappler made clear in that case that there were ”no out-of-court settlements.”

The cyber libel case filed by Pineda was Ressa’s third and the first one in court for Talabong, 24, who joined Rappler in 2017 fresh out of college at the Ateneo de Manila University.

“My call has not changed. We should decriminalize libel, which drains too much precious resources and time from journalists. I experienced this first hand. No journalist should have to go through this,” he said in a statement.

“The law must protect journalists. It must not remain as an accessible weapon to target them. #DefendPressFreedom,” he said.

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