The cofounder and editor of online news outlet Rappler, has been found guilty of “cyber-libel” in a case she along with other press freedom groups have tagged as “politically motivated”.
Maria Ressa, the Philippine based journalist was arrested last year in the Manila offices of Rappler for a story written in 2020 which alleged that businessman Wilfredo Keng had links to illegal drugs and human trafficking. However, the article was published by Rappler two years prior to the new cyber libel laws coming into effect in the Philippines.
On Monday, the court found both Ressa and Rappler staffer Reynaldo Santos Jr. who wrote the story, guilty of the offense, according to her news organization. They face a minimum of six months in prison, and up to 7 years, according to the verdict, though are likely to be bailed while they appeal the judgment. Prosecutors have argued that a correction made to the story after the law passed constituted a “republication” and meant it could be considered as “cyber libel.”
Maria Ressa, commenting on the verdict from the court said it was “not unexpected”.
“We will keep fighting”, she said. "I appeal to you, the journalists in the room, the Philippines who have been listening — to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. So I appeal again… Because it you don't use your rights, you will lose them."
Her lawyer, Amal Clooney, said in a statement that the verdict was "an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines”. She said Ressa would appeal.
Spokesperson for president Duterte, Harry Roque said,
"The President believes in freedom of thought and speech. It's important that we face the challenges of the public, especially from the media. Calling for the ruling to “be respected”.
Embargo on press freedom
Rappler is known for its unflinching coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte and his brutal war on drugs, and the news site’s extensive reporting on the Philippines has made the site along with its journalists, targets of the president’s supporters.
Ressa has been indicted multiple times on libel and tax evasion charges that critics have described as politically motivated and designed to silence independent media in the Southeast Asian country.
In an interview with CNN last year, Ressa made allusions to being a war correspondent much easier than fighting for press freedom.
"At least when you're in a war zone, the gunfire's coming from one side and you know how to protect yourself. If you're a reporter in the Philippines, this is part of daily life. It's like pollution in the air,” she said.
The former CNN bureau chief has posted bail eight times and faces trial on a litany of charges from cyber libel to tax evasion — which she has criticized as an "absurd" effort to halt her reporting.
While Ressa admits she feels "uncomfortable" serving as a global figurehead for the fight for a free press, she is acutely aware of the importance of the cause.