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Conviction of Maria Ressa, hard-hitting Philippine American journalist, sparks condemnation

Maria Ressa arrives at court in Manila on Monday ahead of the verdict in her libel case. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

MANILA — Maria Ressa, a Philippine American journalist known for her critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte, was found guilty of cyber-libel by a court on Monday in a case that has come to symbolize deteriorating press freedom in the Philippines.

Ressa, who heads the news organization Rappler, was charged along with a former researcher, Reynaldo Santos Jr., for an article the site published in 2012. They face six months to six years in prison, but they will be allowed to post bail. They must also pay almost $8,000 in damages.

Human rights watchdogs and media organizations have decried the charges as politically motivated harassment. Rappler has been at the forefront of hard-hitting reporting on Duterte’s policies, particularly a war on drugs that has left thousands dead and prompted United Nations condemnation.

“To the Filipinos watching this, this is not just about Rappler,” Ressa said after the hearing, her voice breaking. “This is not about us. This is about you. Because freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen.”

The head of Rappler faces up to six years in jail after being found guilty of libel June 15 in what is widely seen as a blow to media freedom in the country. (Video: Reuters)

The conviction of Ressa, 56, comes as Duterte and his allies widen a campaign against the administration’s critics. Authorities recently shut down the country’s largest broadcaster and have pushed through a broadly defined anti-terrorism bill that human rights advocates say institutionalizes a crackdown on the populist leader’s detractors. Duterte is expected to sign the bill into law within the next month.

The Philippines, once considered to have the freest press in Asia, has become one of the world’s most perilous places for journalists. This year, it slipped two spots to 136th place in the World Press Freedom Index. Duterte has previously called Rappler “fake news” and said that journalists are not exempt from assassination, though his spokesman Harry Roque said Monday that the president was “not behind the supposed suppression of free speech.”

The case against Ressa centers on a 2012 article written by Santos that cited an intelligence report linking business executive Wilfredo Keng to trafficking and drug smuggling. Keng denied the allegations and filed a complaint in 2017, leading the Justice Department to indict Ressa and Santos last year under the cyber-libel law, which the court said Monday has a longer statute of limitations than regular libel provisions.

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Rappler maintained that Ressa did not edit the article herself, as she does not oversee day-to-day operations in her role as executive editor. Press freedom advocates have said that the decision to lodge the case against Ressa, rather than the editors involved, demonstrated that officials were targeting her.

A peculiar aspect of the case is that the article was published four months before the cyber-libel measure was signed into law by then-President Benigno Aquino III.

Laws cannot be applied retroactively, but the Justice Department argued that the article was republished in 2014 when a Rappler staffer fixed a typographical error online, effectively putting it within the law’s jurisdiction. The tiny edit, which Rappler argued did not constitute republication, involved correcting the spelling of “evasion.”

A former CNN correspondent, Ressa is perhaps the Philippines’ best-known journalist, and her conviction cast a chill over the media industry, particularly for lesser-known practitioners who fear they may be more easily targeted.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called for Ressa’s conviction to be quashed. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it was a “dark day for the independent Philippine press,” while Reporters Without Borders labeled the proceedings “Kafkaesque” and a “shocking judicial masquerade.”

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“This could signal an open season on critical, hard-hitting journalists who serve such an important role in underserved communities, especially in places outside of the capital,” said Human Rights Watch Philippines researcher Carlos Conde. He said the verdict degraded press freedom in ways not seen since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, which ended in 1986.

In her decision, Manila regional trial court judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa maintained that the court was not curtailing press freedom. She ruled that Rappler “did not offer a scintilla of proof” in the allegations against Keng, and that it was not enough to quote an intelligence report.

The judge dismissed the argument that Ressa was not an editor in chief and said Ressa’s designation as an executive editor was a “clever ruse to avoid liability.”

“The right to free speech and freedom of the press cannot and should not be used as a shield against accountability,” Estacio-Montesa wrote in her decision.

Defense lawyers have 15 days to appeal. Ressa faces other legal action related to Rappler’s ownership structure and alleged tax evasion. She and the company have denied wrongdoing.

Speaking after the verdict, Ressa told journalists to continue fighting for their rights. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid,” she said. “I appeal again, don’t be afraid.”

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