Conviction of Maria Ressa a blow to press freedom bishops say

Journalists, including Maria Ressa (second from right), raise their smart phones with words “Stop the Attacks!” in a rally for press freedom in Quezon City, Philippines, on 15 February 2019. Photo: CNS/Reuters
Journalists, including Maria Ressa (second from right), raise their smart phones with words “Stop the Attacks!” in a rally for press freedom in Quezon City, Philippines, on 15 February 2019. Photo: CNS/Reuters

MANILA (UCAN): The apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila, Bishop Broderick Pabillo, said the conviction of Maria Ressa, head of the Rappler news site, and a former researcher, Rey Santos Jr.for supposed cyber libel was a “slide down the dangerous slope to authoritarian rule.”

The bishop said in a statement, “The case is very dubious. How can Maria Ressa be convicted of a crime committed on 29 May 2012, based on a law that was passed on 12 September 2012? If this is jurisprudence now, then it is truly scary.” 

A Manila regional court found Ressa, a former CNN investigative journalist, and Santos, guilty of cyber libel for publishing a story accusing businessman and one of the richest people in the Philippines, Wilfred Keng, of heinous crimes.

The ruling is under appeal.

The Rappler article was first published in 2002 accusing Keng of being a human trafficker, cigarette smuggler and murderer. It was republished in 2012 after Rappler refused a request from Keng’s lawyer to retract the allegations or publish an article in which the businessman tried to defend himself.

This prompted Keng’s lawyer to file cyber libel charges against Ressa, who was Time’s Person of the Year in 2018, and against Santos.

“The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and of the press. But this is a freedom burdened with responsibility, for even the Journalists’ Code of Ethics exhorts all journalists to ‘recognise the duty to air the other side and the duty to correct substantive errors promptly’,” the court said in its ruling.

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The court also said Ressa was equally liable for the defamatory remarks as the editor of the news company.

Ressa, who is also a professor at Princeton University in the United States, said the decision was a blatant attack on press freedom with no other intent but to silence critics of Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte.

“We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. I appeal again, don’t be afraid because if you don’t use your rights, you will lose them,” Ressa said in an interview after the verdict and sentencing.

Human rights groups, advocates and the Catholic Church released statements backing Ressa, saying the decision had a “chilling effect” on press freedom.

Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, also described Ressa’s conviction as a “dark and gloomy day” for the Filipino people.

“This is a very sad day for our country’s press freedom, which is an essential component of a functional democracy in any country,” Bishop David said on social media.

Ressa and Rappler have previously been targets of attack by Duterte for being staunch critics of his war on drugs.

In 2018, Duterte denounced Rappler as a “fake news outlet” and threatened to shut it down. A few months later, the government revoked Rappler’s license due to supposed foreign ownership issues.

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Ressa and Rappler have also faced multiple tax evasion cases. The journalist was arrested twice on tax charges.

“I’m being treated like a criminal when my only crime is to be an independent journalist,” Ressa told reporters.

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