Filipino Rappler Journalists Sentenced to Prison Over a ‘Typo’

Maria Ressa

A court in Manila, Philippines has convicted Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. over charges of cyber libel on Monday.

 

What happened: In a high-profile verdict handed down by the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46, Ressa and Santos Jr. were both sentenced to a minimum of six months and one day to a maximum of six years in jail for charges of cyber libel.

  • The verdict was handed down by Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa after an eight-month trial.
  • Ressa and Santos were also ordered to pay businessman Wilfredo Keng 200,000 Philippine Pesos ($3,972) in moral damages and 200,000 Philippine Pesos in exemplary damages. Entitled to post-conviction bail, Ressa and Santos will be out of jail for now as they appeal their case to higher courts.
  • According to Rappler counsel Ted Te, the Court allowed the accused to remain free after they each posted bail of 100,000 Philippine Pesos ($1,986) on February 14, 2019. He added that they will file an appeal against the ruling within the 15-day period given them.

Convicted over a typo: In 2018, Keng filed a lawsuit via the National Bureau of Investigation over a 2012 investigative report written by Santos which cited an intelligence report mentioning Keng’s alleged involvement in illegal activities.

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  • The story in question was published months before the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 was passed but Keng’s camp contested that it was “republished” in February 2014.
  • Rappler has since rejected this claim. They allegedly updated the article to correct typographical errors, reports ABS-CBN. The defense also noted that the republication rule does not apply in this case as the temporary restraining order on the law was still in effect when the updates were made.
  • Citing a 1988 Supreme Court case, the Department of Justice has argued that the 2012 article falls under the Cybercrime law due to the “multiple publication rule” which states that a single defamatory statement would lead to as many offenses as there are publications if published several times.
  • The defense said the 1988 case and the multiple publication rule only apply to print media, not online. It was also argued that Ressa and Santos had no participation in the supposed “republication.”

A deeper look: Rappler, which has been actively exposing extrajudicial killings and abuses under the government of President Rodrigo Duterte, faces various allegations concerning its corporate existence, foreign ownership and its finances. Additionally, advocacy groups in the Philippines and around the world have been closely following these cases for their purported implications on press freedom in the country.

  • Rappler itself as a company was declared to have no liability from the charges, CNN reports.
  • The Duterte administration, which has dismissed Rappler as fake news, has denied involvement in the cases the news site is facing.
  • Human Rights Watch has released a statement calling Ressa’s conviction, calling It “a devastating blow to media freedom in the Philippines.”
  • In an op-ed for the Washington Post on Friday, international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney wrote: “If Maria is convicted and locked up for doing her work, the message to other journalists and independent voices is clear: Keep quiet, or you’ll be next.”
  • The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines also denounced the verdict, noting it “basically kills freedom of speech and of the press. But we will not be cowed. We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms.”
  • Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, called the verdict “a sham and should be quashed,” noting that “with this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall.”

Feature Images via @mariaressa and TEDx Talks

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