A court in the Philippines has found journalist Maria Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr guilty of “cyber libel”, in a controversial case seen as a major test of press freedom under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
In a decision issued on Monday, the court sentenced Ressa, the executive editor of the news website Rappler, and Santos Jr to a minimum of six months and one day to a maximum of six years in jail. It allowed them to post bail, pending an appeal. They are the first two journalists in the Philippines to be convicted for cyber libel.
Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa also ordered the payment equivalent to $8,000 for moral and exemplary damages to the businessman who lodged the complaint. The complainant originally sought an estimated $1m in damages.
In a press conference following the verdict, Ressa vowed to fight the case, saying the case of Rappler was “a cautionary tale” for the Philippine media.
“It is a blow to us. But it is also not unexpected,” Ressa said. “I appeal to you, the journalists in this room, the Filipinos who are listening, to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. But don’t be afraid. Because if you don’t use your rights, you will lose them.
“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,” she added, as she fought back tears.
Santos said he was “disappointed” of the verdict and felt “very sad” at the outcome.
The case is the first of at least eight active cases filed against Ressa and her media organisation since Duterte came to office in 2016.
Following the verdict, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said “the court decision should be respected”, adding that Duterte “has never been behind any effort to curtail press freedom in the country”.
In a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) called the decision “a dark day” for independent Philippine media and all Filipinos.
“The verdict basically kills freedom of speech and of the press,” the organisation said. “But we will not be cowed. We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms.”
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) described the latest development as “a menacing blow to press freedom”.
Amnesty International’s Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin described the verdict as a “sham” that should be quashed.
“The accusations against them are political, the prosecution was politically motivated and the sentence is nothing but political,” Bequelin said in a statement.
“This guilty verdict follows the shutdown of ABS-CBN, which remains off the air – also after coming under the President’s attacks. The international community cannot remain silent in the face of this brazen vendetta against the press.”
The cyber-libel case against Ressa and her publication stemmed from a 2017 complaint filed by a businessman over a Rappler story that was published in 2012, before the cybercrime law was passed.
The businessman, Wilfredo Keng, said he was “defamed” when he was linked to the then-Supreme Court chief justice, who was later removed from office through impeachment.
The libel complaint was dismissed in 2018, but the National Bureau of Investigation reversed the decision and recommended to the justice ministry that Ressa and the reporter, Reynaldo Santos Jr, be prosecuted. Prosecutors said they were only following the law.
Around the same time, Duterte had sought to close Rappler for alleged foreign ownership and tax evasion, allegations Rappler denied.
The news site had attracted Duterte’s ire for its relentless coverage of the so-called “war on drugs” during which thousands of people have died. It also exposed a pro-Duterte network circulating alleged fake news on social media.
In addition to Rappler, Duterte has seemingly also targeted and forced the closure of ABS-CBN, the largest media company in the Philippines, while the owners of the country’s largest newspaper, Philippine Daily Inquirer, were forced to sell the publication to a Duterte ally after publishing news reports and editorials critical of the mounting deaths in the “war on drugs”.
In a statement, the International Center for Journalists condemned the “state-sponsored legal harassment” in the Philippines.
“ICFJ will continue to support her and her team as they report the news – despite official attempts to silence them.”
Ahead of the verdict, Carlos Conde, of Human Rights Watch in the Philippines, said the case against Rappler “should never have been filed to begin with.”
“The absurdity of this particular case against Maria Ressa – prosecutors deemed the story in question ‘republished’ after Rappler corrected one word that was misspelled – suggests the desperation of those behind it to silence her and Rappler,” Conde said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
While the article in question had been published in 2012, a spelling correction had been made to one word in 2014, something the prosecutors dubbed a “republication” of the article that put it within reach of the cybercrime law.
During an online forum on Monday, Jose Manuel Diokno, a leading human rights lawyer, predicted a “long battle ahead” as the defendants moved to file an appeal.
“This is not the end of it,” said Diokno, a critic of the Duterte administration and opposition candidate for senator in 2019. “There’s a strong need for us to generate a lot of public opinion, a lot of press on the government, on the courts, to look very deeply into this case. The ramifications of this case go deep into whether we can still call the country a real democracy.”