Philippine journalist Maria Ressa convicted of libel, given 6-year term

An award-winning journalist critical of the Philippine president was convicted of libel and sentenced to jail Monday in a decision called a major blow to press freedom in an Asian bastion of democracy.

Manila court sentenced Ressa Monday for libelling a wealthy businessman

Maria Ressa, the award-winning head of Philippine online news site Rappler, talks to the media after posting bail following her arrest in February 2019 in Manila, Philippines. Ressa was convicted of libel and sentenced to jail Monday. (Bullit Marquez/The Associated Press)

An award-winning journalist critical of the Philippine president was convicted of libel and sentenced to jail Monday in a decision called a major blow to press freedom in an Asian bastion of democracy.

The Manila court found Maria Ressa, her online news site Rappler Inc., and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. guilty of libelling a wealthy businessman. The Rappler's story on May 29, 2012, cited an unspecified intelligence report linking him to a murder, drug dealing, human trafficking and smuggling. The site's lawyers disputed any malice and said the time limit for filing the libel complaint had passed.

"Rappler and both accused did not offer a scintilla of proof that they verified the imputations of various crimes in the disputed article upon the person of Keng," Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa said in the 36-page ruling. "They just simply published them as news in their online publication in reckless disregard of whether they are false or not."

"The decision for me is devastating because it says that Rappler is wrong," Ressa said in a news conference after the decision was handed down. Her voice cracking, she appealed to journalists and Filipinos to continue fighting for their rights "and hold power to account."

Ressa was sentenced to up to six years but was not immediately taken into custody. She posted bail for the case last year, and her lawyer, Theodore Te, said they will appeal the verdict.

"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 of Human Rights Watch. He said the verdict was "a frontal assault on freedom of the press that is critical to protect and preserve Philippines democracy."

President Rodrigo Duterte and other Philippine officials have said the criminal complaints against Ressa and Rappler were not a press freedom issue but a part of normal judicial procedures arising from their alleged violations of the law.

WATCH l Ressa speaks with CBC News in 2019 about press freedom in Philippines:

Maria Ressa, a journalist in the Philippines, talks about attacks on journalism and democracy

2 years ago
Duration 7:12
Ressa spoke to the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault in January 2019 about her fears for both institutions in her country.  

Businessman Wilfredo Keng dismissed the allegations as baseless and false and said Rappler refused to take down the story and publish his side. He provided government certifications in court to show that he has no criminal record and sought 50 million pesos ($1.3 million Cdn) in damages, which he said he would donate if he won the case.

Rappler's lawyers said the story was based on an intelligence report and that the one-year period under Philippine penal law when a libel complaint can be filed had ended when Keng filed a lawsuit in 2017, five years after the story was published online.

A cybercrime law, which Rappler allegedly violated, was also enacted in September 2012 or four months after the story written by Santos was published. Rappler's lawyers said Philippine penal laws cannot be retroactively applied.

Rappler, however, acknowledged that it updated the story in February 2014 to correct a misspelled word but said it did not make any other changes. The Department of Justice, which brought the libel charges to court, contended that by updating the story, Rappler effectively republished the story online in 2014, an argument dismissed by the news site's lawyers.

The Department of Justice cited another law to say that a complaint can be filed under the 2012 cybercrime law for up to 12 years, countering Rappler's argument that Keng's complaint was invalid due to being outside a one-year deadline for libel.

Ressa, front right, Rappler CEO and executive editor, is escorted as she arrives to attend a court hearing at Manila Regional Trial Court on Monday. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

As Rappler's chief executive officer, Ressa faces seven other criminal complaints in relation to legal issues hounding her news agency, including an allegation that it violated a constitutional ban on media agencies receiving foreign investment funds.

The moves against Ressa, who has worked for CNN and was one of Time magazine's Persons of the Year in 2018, have been denounced by media watchdogs as a threat to press freedom. Duterte's government said the complaints were part of normal criminal procedures and were not a press freedom issue.

But Ressa has accused the government of abusing its power and of using the law as a weapon to muzzle dissent. Rappler is one of several local and international news agencies deemed critical of Duterte's policies.

Duterte has openly lambasted journalists who write unfavourable stories about him, including about his anti-drug campaign that has left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead.

Duterte had already banned a Rappler reporter from his news briefings after a government corporate watchdog ruled that the news site violated a constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership of media when it received money from an international investment firm.

Rappler, founded in 2012, rejected the ruling.