DO NOT look away when democracy is tested.
Today, June 15, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 will give her verdict on the cyber liber case involving the news website Rappler’s CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr.
In 2017, Wilfredo Keng filed his complaint, claiming he was defamed when Santos connected him to drugs and trafficking in an article he wrote and which Rappler published in 2012.
Including the cyber libel case, 11 cases were filed against Ressa and the Rappler in about a year. Ressa said the lawsuits are “politically motivated,” intended to cow an antagonistic and critical press that holds government and other authorities accountable in their exercise of power.
Aside from distracting journalists from their work and tarnishing their integrity and credibility as truthtellers in the resulting trials of publicity, court cases and government investigations entail considerable expenses for journalists and, when successful, lead to imprisonment and penalties that may constrain a media outfit from continuing to operate.
For instance, under the Republic Act 10951, libel carries a fine of P40,000 to P1.2 million, adjusted from the old rate of P200 to P6,000, provided for in the Revised Penal Code.
However, the subversion of the law to intimidate and silence critics, particularly journalists, may have the most pernicious effect on democracy. When journalists practice self-censorship to avoid retaliation from the government, they no longer check abuses of power and speak out for the powerless.
Without uncensored access to information and journalistic explanations or investigations into the bureaucracy, citizens are hampered from fully participating in governance.
Civic dissent and disobedience are essential duties elided in the dominant narrative that good citizenship means uncritical obedience of the authorities and rejection of government critics as obstructionists to development and unpatriotic citizens.
In “A Thousand Cuts,” a 2020 documentary that Filipino-American Ramona S. Diaz wrote, directed, and co-produced, journalists and citizens share the stake in creating and sustaining a political ecosystem where the rule of law is pursued for the greater good.
When officials betray the public trust and subvert the law, the responsibility to hold the line and defend civil liberties and democracy itself lies on these stakeholders. Each protects the other as ideally, journalists serve the people and citizens defend the freedom of the press.
Focusing on the War on Drugs waged by President Rodrigo Duterte to fulfill his electoral promises to root out the hold of illegal drugs on the nation but which resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dependents and pushers, the documentary traces how Ressa and fellow Rappler journalists like Pia Ranada and Patricia Evangelista use their profession to expose and question the legality and social justice of Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs campaign, which targets the poor and marginalized but fails to net drug syndicates and the drug lords and protectors among the powerful.
While the President asserts that in “the rule of law there must be fear” (47:14), Ressa sees in the violation of the rights of the salvaged victims the slippage of Duterte’s leadership of the nation and the varieties of manipulation, from legal harassment to the launching of armies of trolls in vicious online attacks against adversarial reporting, legitimate dissent, and alternative views, revealing “how the law is bent to the point when it is broken” (48:34).
Since the filing of the first case against Rappler until the present, Ressa and the Rappler are steadfast in their commitment: “We will hold the line. Join us (49:09)”.
Citizens must share the stake to hold the powerful accountable and keep democracy from suffering a “death by a thousand cuts” (48:40).