Rappler CEO Maria Ressa faces upto six years in jail as questions emerge about freedom of media in Philippines

Veteran Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, whose website Rappler has put President Rodrigo Duterte under tough scrutiny, was convicted of libel on Monday and faces up to six years in jail, in a ruling widely seen as a blow to media freedom.

FP Staff June 16, 2020 13:54:43 IST
Rappler CEO Maria Ressa faces upto six years in jail as questions emerge about freedom of media in Philippines

Veteran Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, whose website Rappler has put President Rodrigo Duterte under tough scrutiny, was convicted of libel on Monday and faces up to six years in jail, in a ruling widely seen as a blow to media freedom.

Ressa, chief executive of Rappler and a former CNN journalist, was charged with “cyber libel” over a 2012 article that linked a businessman to illegal activities, reports Reuters.

After the verdict, Ressa vowed not to be silenced and accused the judiciary of becoming complicit in a campaign to stifle press freedom in the Southeast Asian nation. “We’re at the precipice, if we fall over we’re no longer a democracy,” she told reporters.

The decision fuelled concern over human rights in a country where Duterte’s war on drugs has left thousands dead and he recently renewed a threat to kill drug dealers, despite condemnation in a UN report.

He is soon expected to sign an anti-terrorism law his opponents fear could target them, but which he says is needed to fight extremism.

To the shock of many, leading broadcaster ABS-CBN Corp, which had criticised Duterte, had to stop broadcasts last month after its licence expired.

In handing down the verdict against Ressa, 56, a dual US-Filipino citizen, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa said the exercise of a freedom “should and must be used with due regard to the freedom of others”. Ressa faced up to six years in jail, the judge said.

Reynaldo Santos, a former Rappler researcher and writer, was also found guilty. Both were granted bail pending an appeal.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte supported freedom of speech and it was a previous administration that pushed for the “cyber libel” law. Duterte had never filed a libel case against a journalist, he added.

Let's first understand how Rappler became the forefront of the case and why the Philippine government is accused of going after media

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa faces upto six years in jail as questions emerge about freedom of media in Philippines

In this handout photo provided by Rappler Inc., Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa, center, stands outside the courtroom of the Manila Regional Trial Court before her hearing in Manila, Philippines on Monday June 15, 2020. AP

What is Rappler?
Ressa and associates started Rappler on Facebook in 2011 and it became a news website in 2012. “Rappler” comes from combining “rap” and “ripple”, meaning to discuss and to make a wave. It covers everything from business to politics.

Who owns and funds Rappler?
Parent firm Rappler Holdings has four major shareholders with combined stakes of nearly 91 percent. They include Ressa (23.8 percent), media firm Dolphin Fire Group (31 percent), business incubator Hatchd Group (17.9 percent), and angel investor Benjamin So (17.9 percent).

Rappler is funded by advertising, has a premium membership, and has engaged in crowdfunding.

Why is Rappler singled out?
The administration says it supports freedom of the media but must enforce the law. Critics say the government appears to be singling out Rappler.

Its journalists are known for investigative reports, scrutinising the government and fact-checking people in power, especially President Rodrigo Duterte, whose public statements often contain inaccuracies and contradictions. Duterte has called Rappler a “fake news outlet”.

Rappler’s reporting on alleged irregularities and conflicts of interest has irked government members and Duterte’s inner circle. It is banned from attending presidential events.

What are the cases charged against Rappler?
Rappler has been fighting at least three legal and regulatory challenges in the past year, which allege ownership violations, cyber libel, and failure to report gains of nearly $3 million in its 2015 tax returns. It denies wrongdoing.

It operates pending a review after its license was revoked for violating rules against foreigners owning stakes in media.

Rappler had argued Omidyar Network, the philanthropic arm of EBay founder Pierre Omidyar, was a silent investor. Omidyar cut ties to remove what it said was an “artificial barrier” being used against Rappler.

Rappler also faces a libel case over a 2012 story that the justice ministry says broke a cybercrime law because the story was updated in 2014 after the law took effect.

Are other media houses under similar pressure?
There are no similar cases against other media, but Duterte and his office have publicly scolded the press.

Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s spokesman, has said Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The New York Times and Reuters were “hopelessly and blindly critical of the Duterte administration”.

Duterte says he has no problem with journalists, but he has threatened the broadcast license of media group ABS-CBN, accused a newspaper owner of dodging taxes, and blasted columnists who write on sensitive issues such as his health.

Journalists say they face online hate and threats from Duterte’s supporters, with patterns of trolling and language that indicate a degree of organisation. Rappler says the government uses the internet as a weapon, which it denies.

Many threats originate from Facebook postings by pro-Duterte bloggers who say the mainstream media is biased. Some bloggers have ties to the administration or hold government posts. Duterte’s office has said it respects free speech and is not responsible for the online conduct of private citizens.

Philippines' position on the Press Freedom Index
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, part of a legal team representing Ressa, called the conviction “an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines”.

“I hope that the appeals court will set the record straight in this case. And that the United States will take action to protect their citizen and the values of their Constitution,” she said in a statement.

US lawmakers have previously criticised what they see as harassment.

The cyber libel case is one of the numerous lawsuits the government has filed against Ressa and Rappler that have spurred global concern about the intimidation of reporters.

Media watchdogs and human rights groups condemned Monday’s verdict, which Amnesty International called a “sham” that “should be quashed”.

“With this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall,” Nicholas Bequelin, its Asia-Pacific regional director, said in a statement.

The Philippines slipped two places in the World Press Freedom Index this year to 136 among 180 countries, down from 134.

Businessman Wilfredo Keng featured in a 2012 Rappler story, updated in 2014, linking him to illegal activities, citing information in an intelligence report from an unspecified agency.

In his complaint, Keng said the story included “malicious imputations of crimes, vices, and defects.” The court ruling said Rappler showed “actual malice” for not publishing at least a clarification after Keng complained.

With inputs from Reuters

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