By Vann Marlo M. Villegas and Charmaine A. Tadalan, Reporters
A PHILIPPINE trial court convicted a journalist critical of President Rodrigo R. Duterte for cyber-libel, a verdict that could lead to six years in jail and one that critics view as a major setback for democratic rights in the country.
In a 37-page decision, Judge Rainelda H. Estacio-Montesa found Maria Ressa, chief executive officer or news website Rappler, Inc. and former researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. guilty of violating a law against cyber-libel.
They were sentenced to six months to six years in prison. The judge also ordered them to jointly pay the businessman who sued them P400,000 in moral and exemplary damages. Rappler as a company was cleared.
Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders on Monday said the twin convictions showed the Philippine justice system’s “lack of independence from the Executive branch.
“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,” Daniel Bastard, head of the watchdog’s Asia-Pacific desk said in a statement.
“The subject article was republished with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not,” the court said. “This clearly shows actual malice.”
Ms. Ressa, a former CNN investigative reporter, said Rappler would continue to be better and stronger, adding that “investigative journalism must continue.” “If we fall over we are no longer democracy,” she said at a briefing.
The Justice department in February last year indicted Ms. Ressa for cyber-libel based on a complaint by a businessman over an article published in 2012, months before the cyber-crime law was passed. The journalist has said the allegations were unfounded.
A month later, she got arrested again for allegedly violating the ban on foreign ownership in media.
Rappler, which Mr. Duterte has called a “fake news outlet,” is also appealing last year’s order by the Securities and Exchange Commission to close its operations for violating foreign-equity restrictions in mass media. Ms. Ressa is also facing tax evasion cases.
The presidential palace said Mr. Duterte did not have a hand in the court ruling. His spokesman Harry L. Roque said the President has always supported press freedom.
“This is not a fight against press freedom, an institution I deeply respect and uphold,” businessman Wilfredo D. Keng, who filed the lawsuit, said in an e-mailed statement. “For years, I have personally suffered from Rappler’s false accusations against me, which have no place in a responsible and free press.”
Rappler had reported that Mr. Keng was the owner of a vehicle used by the late Chief Justice Renato C. Corona — whom the Senate impeached on corruption charges — and that he was involved in illegal activities.
Senators urged the public to speak out against efforts to silence critics, noting that the conviction comes after the government ordered the shutdown of critical media network ABS-CBN Corp.
“Under the current political atmosphere of repression and authoritarianism, it would have been a surprise if Maria and Reynaldo were acquitted,” opposition Senator Francis N. Pangilinan said in a statement.
“The silencing of critics and the attacks on the media have been going on for three years now,” he added.
Vice President Maria Leonor G. Robredo said the verdict was meant to silence those critical of the government. Opposition Senator Risa N. Hontiveros called it a threat to democracy.
Human Rights Watch called the verdict “a devastating blow to media freedom in the Philippines.”
The verdict stemmed from one of several cases that the government of Mr. Duterte had instigated to stifle Rappler’s critical reporting on the government, particularly its “murderous war on drugs” that has killed tens of thousands of people since July 2016, it said.
“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 Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“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,” he added.
“The trial court decision does have a chilling effect not just on freedom of the press but also on freedom of expression,” Maria Ela L. Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
“It can also be interpreted as a possible overreach of the law given its retroactive application and the wide net it casts on the cyber nature of a publication,” she said.