Journalist and co founder of the Rappler news website, Maria Ressa, has been found guilty of cyber libel in the Philippines.
It’s a devastating blow for press freedom in the Philippines, and comes following numerous attempts to silence Ressa. This time, the verdict could lead to years in prison, with Ressa and former Rappler journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr found guilty of the new law by The Manila Regional Trial Court.
The Rappler newspaper has long played a crucial role in scrutinizing the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, including its violent drug war. Worldwide, Rappler’s become known for its courageous reporting, a position that saw its CEO Ressa named in TIME’s 2018 Person of the Year special, as one of a number of journalists described as “The Guardians”.
The cyber libel charge is just part of a series of charges against Ressa, the total of which could lead to 100 years in prison.
Ressa’s 35 year journalism career has seen her serve as CNN bureau child, cover war zones and become a vocal critic of social media platforms like Facebook, regarding its influence on democracy.
Preparing for the verdict this morning, Ressa told Al Jazeera that that she had been trying to mentally prepare for the verdict so that “whatever happens, nothing will be a surprise or a shock”.
Following the verdict, she vowed to fight on: “Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything.”
The case against Ressa came following a complaint in 2017 from a businessman regarding a story Rappler published in 2012 — prior to the cybercrime law existing. The businessman had claimed he was defamed by being linked to a then Supreme Court Chief Justice, who was later removed from office. Due to a correction made to the article in 2014, prosecutors deemed the piece “republished”.
The complaint was dismissed in 2018, but government investigators then reversed the decision, recommending Ressa and reporter Reynaldo Santos jr be prosecuted.
Human Rights Watch in the Philippines has described the case as “absurd”.
Rappler reports that Ressa and Santos are entitled to post-conviction bail as the conviction is appealable all the way to the Supreme Court. They can remain on bail until they have exhuasted their legal remedies in the higher courts.
Ressa said in a video prior to the verdict: “I am going to embrace my fear. I have to be ready and that starts in my head. That starts with my ability to be okay with the worst-case scenario.”
“I’ve been the cautionary tale: be quiet or you’re next… that’s part of the reason why I have been targeted,” said Ressa. “It’s a chilling effect… not just to me and to Rappler, but to journalists and to anyone who asks critical questions.”
Ressa co founded the online news site Rappler in 2012, which now has millions of followers on social media and has become one of very few media organisations in the Philippines that has been openly critical of President Duterte, publishing numerous stories on the president’s brutal war on drugs which has cost thousands of lives. Ressa and Rappler have also published extensively on human rights violations, corruption, and the spread of propaganda on social media.
Rappler’s operating licence was revoked in 2019, reporters have also been banned from attending and covering official presidential activities.
Accepting a Press Freedom award in 2018, Ressa said: “You don’t really know who you are until you are forced to defend it.”