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Philippines journalist convicted in high-profile libel case

June 15, 2020

A Manila court has found a veteran journalist and staunch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte guilty of cyber libel. Maria Ressa told DW "we must do all we can to protect press freedom, which protects our democracy."

Maria Ressa, front right, wearing a protective mask, is escorted as she arrives to attend a court hearing
Image: picture-alliance/AP/A. Favila

Maria Ressa on libel conviction

Filipina journalist and Rappler news co-founder Maria Ressa has been found guilty of cyber libel in a landmark case widely seen as a blow to press freedom in the Philippines.

"The right to free speech and freedom of the press cannot and should not be used as a shield against accountability," the verdict said on Monday.

"It wasn't unexpected," Ressa told DW. "If you look at it in the context of the eight criminal charges I face, I had to post bail eight times last year just to remain free. And so when I listened to it, I just tried hard not to get angry and then to figure out how do we continue doing our jobs better, given these attacks."

Read more: Ressa's cyber libel verdict 'a method of silencing dissent'

Ressa's associate, former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr., wrote a story in 2012 alleging that a former chief justice maintained close ties with businessmen, including Wilfredo Keng.

In 2017, Keng filed charges against Ressa and Santos Jr., disputing an intelligence report quoted in the article that linked him to drug trafficking activities.

"As this court is mandated to dispense justice, it shall do so not only to protect the Fourth Estate's freedom of expression and of the press, but also equally to protect the rights of private individuals, such as Keng," the verdict said.

Read moreIs Philippines muzzling free press amid coronavirus lockdown?

Press freedom on the line

Populist governments, Ressa told DW, have put press freedom under near unprecedented pressure.

"This is a unique moment in history. We're seeing a rise of authoritarian, populist style leaders, the rise of fascism almost. And you're seeing the attacks on media," she said.

Ressa, who Time magazine named as a Person of the Year in 2018, did not write the article and government investigators initially dismissed the businessman's allegation.

"Part of the reason Rappler came into the crosshairs is because we continue challenging the number of deaths in a very brutal drug war. The Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines estimated months ago that it was over 27,000 people killed.

"And I feel like in my country at least, we're standing on the precipice and we must do all we can to protect press freedom, which protects our democracy," Ressa said.

'Dangerous precedent'

Fellow journalists at Rappler, an online news outlet critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, said Monday's decision had little to do with enacting justice.

"The decision today marks not the rule of law, but the rule of law twisted to suit the interests of those in power who connive to satisfy their mutually beneficial personal and political agenda," said Rappler in a statement. "Today's verdict sets a dangerous precedent not only for journalists but for everyone online."

Although Ressa and Santos Jr. face to up to six years in prison, they do not have to serve the sentence until they have exhausted all appeals. In their case, they can appeal up to the Supreme Court.

Before the trial, Ressa, who leads Rappler, said the verdict would have "an impact on press freedom, not just in the Philippines but I think all around the world."

DW's Melissa Chan expressed solidarity with Ressa, saying she "has spent a lot of energy the past year getting international support to put pressure to bear."

"It hasn't worked in the era of Duterte," she added.

ls/rt (dpa, AFP)