Ressa’s lawyers call for dropping of all charges
MANILA — The Nobel Peace Prize might be the most prestigious award in the planet but for the Philippine Solicitor General, there is “no necessity and urgency” for the appellate court to allow Maria Ressa to personally claim it in Oslo.
The Nobel Peace Prize will be presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who founded the awards in his 1895 will.
Ressa is the second Filipino to get the award, but the first to be named individually. She won the award this year with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov for their “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.”
Ressa’s team of lawyers, led by international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, expressed optimism she would be allowed to fly as they called on the Philippine government to drop all the charges against her.
But in its opposition to Ressa’s motion to travel filed with the Court of Appeals earlier this month, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) said the Rappler CEO “failed to present any compelling argument and/or evidence proving the necessity and urgency of her travel to Oslo, Norway” on Dec. 10.
In her motion to travel filed on November 3, Ressa submitted to the CA a copy of the invitation from the director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute inviting her to collect her 2021 Nobel Peace Prize “in person,” following in the footsteps of a select list of awardees including Mother Teresa, the 14th Dalai Lama, the United Nations and Kofi Anan, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, former US President Barack Obama, and Malala Yousafzai.
“It is a global event that the world tunes in to and where her absence at the event would be conspicuous and difficult to explain,” said Ressa, through her lawyer, Theodore Te.
The invitation letter mentioned that the only instance in recent memory when an awardee failed to accept the award in person was in 2010 when Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer, literary critic and human rights activist, was prevented by the Chinese government from travelling because he was imprisoned at that time. He died in 2017.
“His empty chair at the podium in the Oslo City Hall quickly became a globally recognized symbol of the oppressive nature of the Chinese communist regime,” the invitation letter read.
But for the OSG, the letter from the Norwegian Nobel Institute was only a “mere invitation.”
“Admittedly, there are alternative means by which accused-appellant Ressa may participate in the enumerated events, such as through videoconferencing and other technological applications,” it said.
“Second. There is no showing that accused-appellant Ressa's in person attendance thereto is necessary, or her non-attendance in person to the events in Oslo, Norway would cause irreparable damage or prejudice to her,” it added.
The OSG took exception to the letter citing Liu Xiaobo’s absence from the 2010 ceremony.
“Such an assertion, coupled with an insinuation which associates the refusal to permit travel with an authoritarian government and a symbol of an oppressive regime, is outright baseless and malicious,” it said.
The OSG also claimed that Ressa is a flight risk, citing her criticisms in the media of her conviction for cyber libel in June 2020 over a May 2012 article linking businessman Wilfredo Keng to controversial activities.
Ressa had said the Philippine government had to do legal acrobatics to convict her, weaponizing the law against her in the process.
While the law punishing cyber libel was only enacted in September that year, Philippine authorities and the Manila court which convicted her considered a February 2014 update as a “republication,” making the case fall under the Cybercrime Prevention Act.
Her conviction, the OSG added, operates as a “valid restriction” on her right to travel because she is supposedly “under obligation to make herself available at all times whenever the court requires her presence.”
COURT OF APPEALS’ PRIOR APPROVAL
The Court of Appeals last month, just 10 days after the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, allowed Ressa to attend a month-long program at the Harvard University in Boston after previously denying her attempts to travel following her conviction.
She was also allowed to visit her parents in Florida on Thanksgiving.
The same court, in December last year, rejected her bid to visit her ailing mother who was due for an operation, saying she failed to prove the necessity and urgency of her travel.
In allowing Maria to travel, the CA said the invitation letter clearly indicated her physical presence is required.
It also cited Ressa’s itinerary, her strong economic ties to the Philippines as Rappler CEO and her compliance with court-imposed conditions in her previous travels to prove that she is not a flight risk.
The CA allowed Ressa to travel from October 31 to December 2 but in her latest motion, she asked the appellate court to consider, aside from allowing her to travel from Manila to Oslo from December 8 to 13 this year, to amend her trip so she can directly fly from Boston to Oslo on December 8th.
The OSG is also objecting to this motion, saying this supposedly shows her “proclivity to extend her stay abroad and remain beyond the jurisdiction” of the court.
Ressa has repeatedly stated publicly she will return to the country to finish her appeal and face her cases.
RESSA, LAWYERS OPTIMISTIC
Te, Ressa’s lawyer for the cyber libel case, expressed disappointment that the OSG still opposed Ressa’s plea despite professing to recognizing the value of the award.
“The reaction of the Solicitor General is quite unfortunate because if the Solicitor General really valued the award and saw the importance of the award, it should have simply said, ‘We do not oppose the travel because we see how important it is not only for Maria but also for the country’,” he said at an online press conference Monday.
“But nonetheless we are confident. I think the grounds we have cited for the motion are quite compelling. And we are confident the Court of Appeals will uphold the right of Maria to travel to Oslo and hopefully that will then be the trend rather than the exception,” he added.
Te acknowledged winning the Nobel Peace Prize could, in a way, help Ressa’s legal battles, particularly her motion to travel.
“While it won’t have a direct impact in the sense that the court will necessarily be bound by the award, the court is of course comprised of human beings. They read the papers, they know the importance of the Prize, and so I think to some extent, it would have shaped and influenced the way the Court of Appeals would have acted,” he said.
For her part, Clooney said the CA’s earlier decision is a good sign.
“We have a very positive precedent, which is that the last request was approved which is why Maria is joining us from outside the Philippines today. So we have every hope that she will be permitted to go to Oslo. And if that doesn’t happen, then of course, we have to just consider that at the time but we hope that won’t be the case,” she said.
Clooney’s colleague at London-based Doughty Street Chambers, Caoilfhionn Gallagher, stressed the importance of a Nobel laureate personally receiving the award.
“Since 1901, Nobel Peace laureates have accepted prizes in person by the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the presence of Their Majesties, the King and Queen of Norway, the Norwegian government, members of The Storting, the parliament in Norway and an invited audience. That’s the expectation for over a century and in 2021, we very much hope it will be no different,” she explained, noting that aside from 2010, the only other time when an awardee failed to personally receive the award was in the 1930s, when the Nazis refused to allow the recipient to travel.
INT'L LAWYERS: DROP ALL CHARGES VS RESSA
But beyond the grant of Ressa’s plea to fly to Oslo, both Clooney and Gallagher called for Philippine authorities to drop all the 7 pending cases against Ressa and Rappler.
Aside from the cyber libel case, Ressa, with Rappler, is also facing tax evasion cases and violations of Anti-Dummy law, apart from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision to close down Rappler — all of which, the international lawyers point out, stem from Rappler’s issuance of Philippine Depository Receipts or PDRs to foreign entities.
The SEC said the language of the PDRs gave foreign entities some form of control prohibited under the Philippine constitution, a claim Rappler has denied.
The PDRs have since been donated to Filipinos but in a recent comment submitted to the Court of Appeals, the SEC said the donation did not cure the defect and it stood by its earlier order to shut down Rappler. The CA has yet to act on the case.
Clooney sought to dispel the notion that the cases Ressa is facing are private cases outside the control of Philippine authorities.
“These cases are not about private parties and it is not too late for them to be resolved by the State. Although Maria’s libel conviction was triggered by a complaint by a private person, it was pursued as a criminal case by state prosecutors and the State has the power to discontinue all the cases since they are either at the pre-trial stage or still subject to appeal,” she said.
“I hope that the charges against her will finally be dropped. This government has a few months left to go and an important choice to make — should it double down on its persecution of this lone journalist while the entire world is watching? Or seize this opportunity to show that it does not fear criticism and that the Philippines should once again be considered a beacon for liberty and democracy around the world. I hope for the sake of all journalists and all Filipinos that it will be the latter,” she added.
For Gallagher, it’s all up to the Philippine authorities now whether to proceed with the cases.
“There’s a key moment now in the lead-up to the tenth of December. It is entirely in the control of the authorities whether to continue to pursue these baseless criminal charges or whether to cease and that’s also true in respect to the appeal…So for all seven outstanding cases, the ball is now in the Philippine court on what it chooses to do and we will be watching closely its next steps,” she said.
Ressa herself is optimistic about her chances.
“I think there’s a perfect storm coming together. You know it is the fifth year of President Duterte. This climate of violence and fear which he himself has said he wants to use to lead is lifting partly also because we’ve moved into election season. I think that’s part of it. I think you’re seeing decisions in cases where there’s a light, there’s a lifting, and I hope that the Nobel is part of that,” she said.
Clooney reminded Filipinos of the significance of the Nobel Peace Prize and Ressa’s win.
Ressa, she said, is the first journalist to receive the prize in over 80 years and only the 18th woman in the world to ever receive the honor.
“This should be a moment when all Filipinos can unite around something positive, a proud moment to celebrate a great achievement,” she said.