Press freedom under attack as Maria Ressa convicted in Philippines

Press freedom under attack as Maria Ressa convicted in Philippines
Maria Ressa, CEO and Executive Editor of online news site Rappler, looks on during a press conference after her promulgation case in Manila, Philippines, 15 June 2020. Ressa was found guilty on the cyber-liber charges case filed against Rappler. (EPA-EFE/Mark R. Cristino)

A Manila court has found journalist Maria Ressa, well known in the Philippines for reporting on the malfeasance in Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, guilty of cyber libel on Monday. The conviction is a threat to press freedom in the region and across the world.

Human rights and media organisations have warned that the case against Maria Ressa, found guilty by a Manila court on Monday for cyber libel, could embolden governments across the region and the world to stifle free speech and limit the free press.

Ressa, editor of the influential news website Rappler, known for its critical reporting on strongman President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, was found guilty of cyber libel after publishing a story in 2012 about a supreme court justice using a car owned by an influential businessman.

Ressa and her co-accused, former Rappler journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr, were released on bail pending an expected appeal after the court found there was insufficient evidence to justify the article’s claims.

The judgment has been widely criticised as an attempt to stifle press freedom in the Philippines. Duterte has dismissed Ressa and Rappler as “fake news” since he was elected in 2016.

Rappler has been one of the country’s few publications to criticise the president’s war on drugs, which, according to Human Rights Watch, has led to over 12,000 deaths.

“The verdict against Maria Ressa highlights the ability of the Philippines’ abusive leader to manipulate the laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices, whatever the ultimate cost to the country,” said Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

“The Rappler case will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom.”

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, “Today’s conviction and sentencing of Maria Ressa of up to six years in jail is an outrageous crime against press freedom.”

“Although out on bail while she appeals the verdict, Ressa’s wrongful conviction sends a message to all journalists that you could be next if you report critically on President Rodrigo Duterte’s government.”

Daniel Bastard from Reporters Without Borders said, “By passing this extremely harsh sentence at the end of utterly Kafkaesque proceedings, the Philippine justice system has demonstrated a complete lack of independence from the executive.”

“This sentence bears the malevolent mark of President Duterte and his desire, by targeting Rappler and the figure of Maria Ressa, to eliminate all criticism whatever the cost. We urge Manila’s judges to restore a semblance of credibility to the Philippine judicial system by overturning this conviction on appeal.”

Monday’s judgment is the first in multiple cases levelled by the authorities against Ressa. She’s been charged in another libel case and in cases of illegal foreign ownership of Rappler, all seen by press freedom associations as an attempt to stifle critical voices in the Philippines.

The cyber libel law Ressa was convicted of contravening was passed in late 2012, months after the Rappler article was published, and investigators dismissed the case in 2018 before reversing the decision. They claimed that because the publication fixed a typo and updated the article in 2014, it fell under the new law.

In a press conference after the judgment, Ressa said she was committed to continuing her work.

“It is a blow to us. But it is also not unexpected,” she was quoted by Al Jazeera.

“I appeal to you, the journalists in this room, the Filipinos who are listening, to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. But don’t be afraid. Because if you don’t use your rights, you will lose them.”

Before the ruling, Australian journalist Peter Greste, who spent a year in prison in Egypt, warned it would have international consequences.

“If we see a conviction in this case without a serious pushback from the White House, from Canberra, from London, from other democracies around the world, it will be a very clear signal not just to the Philippines but to other states that are limiting press freedom across the region, that they can get away with it, that they can crack down on journalists with relative impunity, that there is no big price to pay,” said Greste.

The judgment was made as the Committee to Protect Journalists warned of threats to media freedom across the world as governments implement stringent measures and limit rights to prevent the spread of Covid-19. DM


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