Philippine journalism took a grievous blow yesterday with the conviction of Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. on a case that stemmed from a cyberlibel complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng.
In the context of recent developments including, among others, the swift passage in Congress of the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act, the call by a government functionary for the deportation of a Taiwan-based Filipino worker who had criticized the Duterte administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the guilty verdict was not surprising.
But it was shocking nonetheless, and bids well to generate a chilling effect on journalists’ efforts to shine a light on dark corners and hold up a mirror to the society in which they live.
“We’re a cautionary tale,” Ressa said of her and Santos’ conviction for which Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 handed down a prison sentence of six months and a day up to six years.
Indeed they are — a grim narrative that began with Keng’s filing of a complaint at the National Bureau of Investigation in 2017, or five years after Santos’ piece was first posted (May 2012) on the online news website and three years after it was reposted (February 2014) to correct a typographical error.
The NBI’s cybercrime division actually threw out the complaint, citing the one-year prescription period as provided in the Revised Penal Code. But a year later, the Department of Justice pronounced that liability for cyberlibel could extend to 12 years. DOJ prosecutors filed the charges on the basis of Republic Act No. 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which was enacted in September 2012 — or four months after the article was first posted.
Ressa was arrested in February 2019 and was held in detention overnight. She has since been out on bail, which covers her conviction.
“If Maria Ressa is convicted,” Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said earlier, “it would amount to a threat to every working journalist in the Philippines, and, therefore, would undermine press freedom.”
He added: “It’s absurd that a journalist could be prosecuted, much less found guilty, under a law that was enacted only after the alleged misconduct took place.”
Concerned groups in the Philippines and overseas have cited the case against Ressa as part of the pattern of intimidation of journalists writing critically of government policies and actions. The coverage by Rappler and other news organizations of the administration’s bloody war on drugs as well as its tepid handling of the COVID-19 contagion in the country has not pleased Malacañang and its allies. President Duterte once accused Rappler of running fake news, and the Palace has banned its reporter from presidential press conferences.
Filipinos should take more than a passing interest in this guilty verdict that, according to Nicholas Bequelin, regional director of Amnesty International in the Asia-Pacific, “is a sham and should be quashed.” It is not only journalists that are at risk with the conviction of Ressa and Santos for the report on the impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona’s supposed questionable association with Keng. Anyone writing online that offends powerful people are in danger of being sued within 12 years of their posting; the danger becomes greater in a progressively shrinking democratic space where the law becomes a handy weapon to wield against perceived offenders.
Ressa, a journalist of more than 30 years, is facing other criminal cases involving the supposed foreign ownership of Rappler and her tax returns. Still, in remarks made shortly after the ruling was handed down, she promised to “keep fighting,” and called on other Filipinos to “protect your rights.” Notably, she urged the government to avert its truculent gaze from journalists like herself: “We are not your enemy. Let us do our job.”
How do journalists perform their job of informing the public on matters essential to life, liberty, and the pursuit of livelihood in these dangerous times? The task becomes more arduous by the day, and it is with a determined sense of purpose that each of us in the calling should move forward.
In the words of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer executed in November 1995 along with eight other environmental and human rights activists on what many contended were trumped-up murder charges: “The writer cannot be a mere storyteller, he cannot be a mere teacher, he cannot merely X-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future.”