Philippines: Maria Ressa′s cyber libel verdict ′a method of silencing dissent′ | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 15.06.2020
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Philippines: Maria Ressa's cyber libel verdict 'a method of silencing dissent'

Journalists Maria Ressa and Rey Santos Jr. have been found guilty of cyber libel. Activists say the verdict is an attack on press freedom by President Duterte's administration. Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.

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Ressa: 'Protect press freedom to protect democracy'

Dumay Solinggay broke down and cried when she read the news that veteran journalist Maria Ressa had been convicted of the crime of cyber libel and could spend up to six years in jail.

"Who will be next? This will set a precedent, which will be with us longer than this administration," said the 30-year-old artist and writer, who spoke to DW from Vietnam, where she fled after she learned that her name was included in a list of suspected communist insurgents.

"The news about Ressa made me feel helpless. I am worried about my family back home," said Solinggay.

An 'attack on press freedom'

On Monday, a Manila court convicted Ressa and former Rappler writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyber libel for publishing an article that implicated a prominent businessman who was allegedly involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling. The article was published before the cyber libel law was enacted, prompting rights activists from around the world to label the charges as bogus and another example of an attack on press freedom and critical reporting by the Duterte administration.

Ressa co-founded the online website Rappler in 2012. Its coverage of the state's crackdown on illegal narcotics, which has left thousands of suspected petty drug peddlers dead, soon drew the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Read more: Ressa says arrests intended to shut up news site

In his 2017 State of the Nation address, Duterte claimed that Rappler was foreign-owned and violated the constitution, which says that mass media organizations should be wholly-owned by Filipino nationals.

Rappler has denied this allegation, but other threats followed, including an order from the Security and Exchange Commission to revoke the publication's operating license, and banning a Rappler reporter from covering the presidential palace.

Since then, Ressa has had eight criminal charges filed against her, ranging from tax evasion to foreign ownership, and has been arrested twice. If found guilty for all of the criminal charges brought against her, she could face up to 100 years in prison.

Watch video 01:44

Journalist Maria Ressa convicted of libel

Other media outlets who have been critical of the government have faced similar forms of intimidation meant to stop them from reporting. Last month, the nation's largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was shut down because it was not allowed to renew its legislative franchise. Months earlier, the country's largest broadsheet, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was threatened with closure when its owners were charged with tax evasion.

At a press conference after the announcement of Monday's verdict, Ressa was defiant and resolved to continue her work as a journalist. "Investigative journalism is more important today than ever. So much is happening in an opaque, grey area," she said.

Like martial law again

"More than the obvious attack on the freedom of the press, Maria Ressa's conviction is an attack on our democracy itself. We are now but a few steps away from martial law," former senator Antonio Trillanes said in a statement.

Danilo Dela Fuente, 72, well remembers the years of martial law in the 1970s under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and sees similarities with the Duterte government.

"Marcos shut down all the TV stations and newspapers. Only a state-run newspaper and TV station were allowed to operate, broadcasting government propaganda. Duterte is doing the same but he is using government trolls to spew his propaganda," said Dela Fuente, the spokesperson of SELDA, a group of former political detainees.

"Both are doing everything they can to instill fear and keep people blind, deaf and mute," he told DW.

Read more: Ressa: 'President Duterte is bullying media organizations'

Consolidating power

Teresita Quintos-Deles, a rights activist and former government official, could barely restrain her anger over the government's misplaced priorities. "In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, when millions of Filipinos have lost their jobs and struggling to survive, the government chose to prioritize repression.

"This just shows that this government doesn't care about its people's welfare," Deles told DW.  

According to Deles, the government is taking advantage of the COVID-19 public health crisis, as people are distracted and have limited platforms for public assembly and protest. The government, she said, is intimidating critics into silence through measures like the verdict against Ressa and the passage of an anti-terror bill, which would allow for warrantless arrests and interrogations of suspect terrorists.

Kristina Conti, a lawyer for the non-profit Public Interest Law Center, told DW that the actions of the government should not be viewed in isolation. 

"The attack on the opposition has been systematic. We should not look at today's verdict against Maria Ressa as a singular event. This is Duterte consolidating power."

Read more: UN report decries human rights violations in Philippines' war on drugs

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