The Current

Facing possible jail time totalling 100 years, journalist Maria Ressa says she won't stop fighting for justice

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa was found guilty of cyber libel by a court in Manila this week, but faces multiple charges with sentences totalling 100 years. She says the charges are politically motivated, and represent a wider threat to press freedom and democracy

Charges politically motivated by criticism of Philippine President Duterte, says Ressa

Award-winning journalist Maria Ressa talks to the media after posting bail following her arrest in Feb. 2019, in Manila, Philippines. She was convicted of libel and sentenced to jail Monday, but released pending appeal. (Bullit Marquez/The Associated Press)
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Before her conviction for "cyber libel" Monday, Philippine journalist Maria Ressa spent weeks mentally preparing herself for the prospect of going to prison.

"I realized that I have to wrap my head around this because the path that I'm on will logically take me there, right?" said Ressa, editor and CEO of the Philippine news website, Rappler.

Overall, Ressa currently faces eight criminal charges in the Philippines, which she says are a politically motivated response to her website's criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration's war on drugs, which has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings

Cumulatively, Ressa said she is facing sentences that add up to almost 100 years.

She told The Current's Matt Galloway that she "needed to imagine what it was like" to be in prison, and to have to adapt to the daily routine, exploring the idea to the point it became the subject of "gallows humour."

"It took me a while, but until you conquer your fear, it has a hold of you," she said.

Ressa arrives at court Monday, where she was convicted of cyber libel. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

Messa and a former Rappler writer, Reynaldo Santos Jr., were convicted Monday of "cyber libel" — defined as libel committed online — for a 2012 article that alleged wealthy Filipino businessman Wilfredo Keng was involved in murder, drug dealing, human trafficking and smuggling.

The article cited an unspecified intelligence report, but in her ruling, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa said the accused had offered no proof of the allegations. The judge added that there had been no government influence on the case, and said freedom of the press "cannot be used as a shield" against libel.

Messa and Santos Jr. face up to six years in prison for the conviction, but have been released on bail pending appeal. 

The verdict was horrifying to hear, but not unexpected, said Ressa, who said attacks on her news organization dated back to when Duterte took office in 2016.

"We came under attack because we kept challenging the impunity of the government in the drug war," she said. 

Watch: Thousands killed in President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs

Since President Rodrigo Duterte launched a war on drugs last summer, violence has spiralled with more than 7,000 murders, most of them unsolved 17:44

"We exposed the propaganda war, the information operations that the Philippine government is doing against its own citizens." 

As a result, she said that "President Duterte and the Philippine government would like you to think I'm a criminal."

"It was seeded on social media, it was repeated insidiously by government officials, pro-government accounts, and then four years later [I'm] given a guilty verdict as a criminal by a court."

Amnesty International condemned the ruling, saying "this verdict is a sham and should be quashed."

Ressa said she isn't resigned to jail time, and still has "hope that there are men and women in the judiciary who will uphold the rule of law."

"I will look for justice. I won't stop," she said.

Watch: Maria Ressa speaks with CBC News in 2019 about press freedom in Philippines:

Ressa spoke to the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault in January 2019 about her fears for both institutions in her country.   7:11

Case hinged on typo

The cyber libel law used to convict Ressa was introduced in Sept. 2012, four months after the offending Rappler article was published.

However, prosecutors successfully argued that an update to the article in Feb. 2014 counted as republication, and meant the charge was applicable. Rappler's argument that the change was simply to fix a typo was dismissed.

"Essentially, I could go to jail for up to six years because someone in Rappler changed a typographical error, fixed one letter in one word, in 2014," Ressa said.

Under Phillipine law, libel cases normally have a one-year statute of limitations but the judge agreed to hear the case under a separate 12-year statute included in the cyber libel legislation. 

"Now you have the weaponization of social media, followed by the weaponization of the law, and the target there are people like us," Ressa said.

"This is how press freedom dies, and this is how our democracy dies."

Supporters of ABS-CBN, the country's top broadcast network, hold a rally in Quezon City, on Feb. 10. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

Ressa pointed out that Rappler is not the only news organization in the Philippines under attack, pointing to the country's leading broadcast network, ABS-CBN, going off air last month.

The network, which the president has targeted for its critical news coverage, was ordered to halt operations after its congressional franchise expired in May.

"We're not the only news group under attack, although because I speak up and I challenge the government, you heard about me more," she told Galloway.

How lies become facts online

Ressa was one of the journalists named Time Magazine's Person of the Year in 2018, under the theme of the "guardians and the war on truth."

She told Galloway there has been a shift in who are the "gatekeepers" of information in the public sphere — from news organizations to technology and social media platforms.

While news organizations are liable and could be sued "if we allowed lies to spread," technology platforms like Facebook have "largely abdicated their responsibility," she said.

The danger is that "if you say a lie a million times, it becomes a fact," she said.

'Journalism is activism'

Ressa has previously thanked the Duterte administration for "unshackling" her in her work.

"When we do a story and somebody says: 'My rights are violated,' you have to go and talk to the person, interview the person, interview the government, look at all the documents," she said.

"In this case, I was that person."

She said that in arresting her over a story she neither wrote nor edited, and retroactively applying a law that didn't exist at the time of publication, the government "was clearly targeting me."

Watch Maria Ressa's commencement speech to the Princeton class of 2020

She also alleges her arrest was timed for the end of the day, when courts would be closed and she would not be able to secure bail. 

The aim was to force her "to spend the night in detention," she said, adding that "it was clear the government wanted me to feel their power."

"This is weaponization of the law; this is clear abuse of power," she said. 

"And then in my head, I had to figure out, am I a journalist or am I a Filipino? And I realize I'm both." 

U.S. President Donald Trump and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte at the Summit Of The Association Of Southeast Asian Nations in Nov. 2107. (Alexander Miridonov/Kommersant via Getty Images)

She said it's "a problem Western journalists are going to have to confront."

"I think this is the world we live in today," she said.

"Journalism is activism, when you're in a battle for truth."


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Alison Masemann.

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