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US government worried about guilty judgment on journalists

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Maria Ressa’s latest court appearance is over accusations Rappler falsified tax returns by omitting the proceeds of a sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors, which later became the securities regulator’s basis to revoke its license.

THE UNITED STATES government has raised concerns about the conviction of a journalist critical of President Rodrigo R. Duterte for cyber-libel, saying the case must be resolved in favor of press freedom.

“We hope this case is quickly resolved in a way that reinforces our long-shared commitment to freedom of expression, including for members of the press,” US Department of State spokesman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement late Tuesday.

“We are concerned by the trial court’s verdict against Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos,” US Department of State Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement, late Tuesday evening.

A Philippine trial court convicted Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of news website Rappler, Inc. and former researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. for violating a law against cyber-libel.

Critics view the verdict, which could lead to a jail term of up to six years, as a major setback for democratic rights in the country.

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In a 37-page decision, Judge Rainelda H. Estacio-Montesa 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.”

The US government’s remarks came after a joint statement from US Senators Edward J. Markey, Patrick Leahy, and Dick Durbin, who renewed their call for the Philippine government to drop all charges against Ms. Ressa, a former CNN investigative reporter and other local journalists.

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 has said Mr. Duterte did not have a hand in the court ruling.

Rappler had reported that Wilfredo 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.

Opposition senators have 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.

Meanwhile, Senator Ralph G. Recto said the law on cyber-libel has “ambiguities and frightening consequences on our freedom,” adding that Ms. Ressa’s conviction could still be overturned on appeal.

“A nation can withstand an occasional reckless press, but it cannot survive with a repressed one,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch has called the verdict “a devastating blow to media freedom in the Philippines.” — Charmaine A. Tadalan

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