Bad day for media freedom in Philippines as Maria Ressa convicted

15 June 2020

Monday 15 June will be marked as another day in which media freedom in the Philippines, a country of 106m inhabitants, was dealt a savage blow. It is the day that Maria Ressa, founder and editor-in-chief of independent news organisation Rappler, and Rey Santos Jr, a journalist working for Rappler, were found guilty of cyber libel.

Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC of London’s Doughty Street Chambers have, on behalf of the international legal team acting for award-winning journalist Maria Ressa, expressed condemnation following today’s judgment handed down by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa in the Manila Regional Trial Court.

Ms Ressa, former CNN bureau chief and one of four journalists named Time’s Person of the Year in 2018, stood accused of libelling businessman Wilfredo Keng in an article published on news website, Rappler.com. More information about the case is available here.

Today, the Court found Ms Ressa and her co-Defendant, reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr, guilty of the crime of cyberlibel.  Ms Ressa was sentenced to a minimum of 6 months and a maximum of 6 years imprisonment and granted bail pending appeal.  A fine of approximately $8,000 (P400,000) was also imposed.

Ms Clooney said of today’s verdict: “Today a court in the Philippines became complicit in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse. This conviction is 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.”

Ms Gallagher said: “Independent journalism in the Philippines is an act of bravery. At least 16 journalists have been killed since President Duterte came to office in 2016, and today’s verdict comes just weeks since the country’s largest media network was shut down. Maria Ressa’s conviction on baseless charges, for an article she did not write, under a draconian law which did not exist when the article was published, is an ugly stain on the Philippines’ reputation. The international community must condemn this grave attack on independent journalism and media freedom in the strongest terms.”  

Ms Ressa said: “Today I have been convicted, but it is also the justice system in the Philippines on trial. For years I have been targeted by the authorities, following the government’s weaponization of social media. Today the judiciary became complicit in this insidious campaign to silence independent journalism and stifle press freedom. But neither I nor Rappler will be silenced. I will fight this conviction, and I will continue to do my duty, to speak out and report the truth.”

Remarkably, seven further cases remain pending against Ms Ressa, exposing her potentially to decades in prison.  The barrage of cases against Ms Ressa, which allege illegal foreign media ownership of her news site and alleged tax offences, are equally spurious, and an act of retaliation by the current administration against her reporting, which has exposed corruption and abuses, including the execution of thousands of Filipinos in the name of a war on drugs.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has characterised the cases against Ms Ressa as an act of “persecution” by a “bully government.”  In December 2019, the US Senate also criticised the cases, holding that they were “widely viewed by human rights observers and a number of governments as part of a pattern of ‘‘weaponizing the rule of law’’ to repress independent media.”

The AIB adds its voice to those protesting this assault on media freedom in the Philippines. The convictions are clearly wrong and they will add to the growing impunity that those who want to silence the media feel that they have in targeting journalists and news organisations. The AIB will support Maria, Rey, Rappler and others in similar situations in any way that it can.

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