Press freedom groups decry verdict on Ressa, Santos

MEDIA organizations expressed disapproval of the conviction of Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos for cyber libel by the Manila Regional Trial Court on Monday, June 15, 2020.

In a statement, the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) deplores the conviction of Ressa and Santos, adding that it is worried about the impact of the court decision on future prosecutions for cyber libel.

The CCPC earlier took a stand against the Department of Justice’s “novel theory,” which stretches cyber libel’s prescription period from one year to 12 years.

Aside from the CCPC, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-Ifra) also condemned the court decision convicting Ressa and Santos.

In a statement posted on its website, WAN-Ifra chief executive officer Vincent Peyregne described the decision as a “dark day for press freedom in the country and a dark day for all Filipinos.”

Ressa and Santos were each sentenced to imprisonment of six months and one day to six years.

They were also ordered to pay a total of P400,000 in damages to businessman Wilfredo Keng. The court, however, granted bail.

The verdict was handed down by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 at 9 a.m. on June 15.

In her ruling, Estacio-Montesa said the prosecution was able to establish the presence of all four elements of libel, as follows: allegation of a discreditable act or condition concerning another, publication of the charge, identity of the person defamed and existence of malice.

The court ruled that Rappler’s article is defamatory, as “there were several crimes imputed upon the person of Keng.”

The court said two letters from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) dated August 15, 2016 and May 20, 2019 state that Keng “has no derogatory record on file at the PDEA.”

The court also argued that the article was not updated but “republished” as the original article published on May 29, 2012 can no longer be found.

It further noted that the identity of Keng was established in the article.

On the existence of malice, the court said the prosecution established that Keng is a private person.

It also noted that Santos wrote the article without verifying the allegations against Keng.

The court added that when the article was published for the first time, Keng demanded Rappler to present a “fair and well-balanced report by also publishing his side of the story.”

The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) said in a Twitter post that the “verdict basically kills freedom of speech.”

Rights advocate Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the ruling as a devastating blow to media freedom in the Philippines.

Keng filed the case in October 2017. Ressa was arrested on February 13, 2019. (JKV, Jove T. Moya / SunStar Philippines)