With the Philippines arresting journalist Maria Ressa multiple times since 2018 on charges ranging from tax evasion to cyber libel, it was only a matter of time until authorities secured a conviction. They worked quite hard to get there.
Ressa, co-founder and executive editor of the Philippines news site Rappler, and her former colleague Reynaldo Santos, were convicted today under the Philippines’ relatively recent cyber libel legislation, which targets online child pornography and fraud—but also extends the country’s criminal libel laws to the online sphere (pdf). They are the first journalists to be convicted under the law, which was passed in 2012, challenged, and later upheld in 2014.
Opponents of the law warned the government could use it to silence influential critics like Ressa, who led Rappler’s award-winning team to provide some of the fiercest coverage of the country under the administration of president Rodrigo Duterte. Rappler documented the extrajudicial killings of the drug war and analyzed the evolution and impact of fake news in the country. It also produced stories investigating corruption, such as the 2012 article on alleged ties between judges and tycoons written by Santos that resulted in the charges that led to today’s conviction. Philippine businessman Wilfredo Keng brought a complaint under the new law over the article, which stated he was at one time under surveillance by authorities for criminal activities.
The cyber libel law wasn’t actually in effect at the time the piece was published in Rappler. In general, applying a punitive law retroactively is understood to be a violation of due process. In this case, however, government lawyers pointed to a correction the site made to the article in 2014, amending the spelling of “evation” to “evasion.” This meant the article had been re-published they argued, opening it to prosecution under the new law.
Later the government used a different law to clarify that for “special” legislation like the cyber crime law, the statute of limitation is 12 years. Ressa earlier called the libel charges “baseless.”
Press groups in and outside of the country criticized today’s verdict, with the Committee to Protect Journalists calling it an “outrageous crime against press freedom.” In its own statement Rappler said that the court ruling demonstrated “the rule of law twisted to suit the interests of those in power.”
Ressa approached her looming court date with a stoic outlook on her own fate.
Last month, she sent out an email to readers with characteristic idealism about the role of journalism in the world and her own:
I am not a criminal. I am a journalist.
Yet, this is what it takes to be a journalist in the Philippines today. Submit, accept a Damocles’ sword over your head, censor yourself, or be punished. Well, I never did like bullies, and I’ve learned that you define who you are when you’re tested. When we at Rappler look back a decade from now, we will know we did everything we could to protect our democracy.
So I touched my fear and learned to embrace it. Once you do that, you rob it of its power. We at Rappler imagined worst case scenarios, planned, and drilled for them.
Ressa and Santos will appeal their convictions. They face a sentence of up to six years if their appeals fail.