Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has condemned a decision by an appeals court in the Philippines to uphold the conviction of Nobel peace prize-winner Maria Ressa in a cyber libel case while adding more jail time to her sentence.
Maria Ressa, co-founder of the website Rappler and currently out on bail, lost her appeal last week against a conviction for cyber libel – just one of an onslaught of legal cases and investigations the journalist is battling.
Clooney, who jointly leads the international counsel team acting for Ressa, said the journalist “should be celebrated – not thrown in jail” for her work. Ressa had been “considered guilty until proven innocent – and then prevented from proving her innocence”, she said.
Ressa and her former colleague Rey Santos Jr., who face jail over the conviction, plan to appeal again, including to the Supreme Court.
Clooney added that she hoped the Marcos Jr. administration would “show the world that it is strong enough to withstand scrutiny and allow a free press”.
Independent media came under intense pressure under his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. Just days before he left office, the Philippine authorities ordered Rappler to shut down over an allegation that the outlet violated restrictions on foreign ownership in media – a claim that Rappler denies.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, who leads Ressa’s international counsel team with Clooney, said the Philippines was at a pivotal moment. “Duterte leaves behind a country in which press freedom, human rights and the rule of law have been severely weakened,” Gallagher said.
“The world is watching how the new president responds. Will President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. stop the rot, or will he double down on his predecessor’s attacks on journalists and civil society?”
It is feared that conditions for journalists may not improve under Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the former dictator. His father is notorious for imposing martial law and closing down all independent media outlets, and he too has been criticised for seeking to dodge media perceived as critical during election campaigning.
The cyberlibel case relates to a story published on Rappler in 2012 that alleged ties between a Philippine businessman, Wilfredo D Keng, and a high court judge.
Ressa’s lawyers point out that the cyberlibel law did not exist at the time of publication and that Ressa was not an author of the article. They also argue that the report was on a matter of public interest and written in good faith, and so should be protected free speech in Philippine law.
However, last week the court of appeals upheld her conviction and increased her maximum prison sentence to more than six years.
Ressa – who was awarded the Nobel peace prize last year for her work to “safeguard freedom of expression” – said the court decision followed alarming developments for press freedom over the past three weeks. This included, she said, the blocking of news websites, the shutdown order against Rappler, the killing of a media worker, and increased online attacks against journalists and activists.
“Despite these sustained attacks from all sides, we will continue to do our jobs. Independent journalism in the Philippines is needed now more than ever,” Ressa said. (Source: The Guardian)