Rappler’s Executive Editor and CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. were found guilty of violating the Philippines’ Cybercrime Prevention Act specifically for cyber libel, by Manila Regional Trial Court Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa.
Ressa and Santos are the first journalists in the Philippines to be tried and found guilty of cyber libel.
In an earlier interview, Ressa has described the approaching verdict as “an existential moment” for democracy in the country, where there are major concerns about shrinking democratic rights.
She and the human rights watchdogs claimed that the trial is aimed at silencing critics of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The 56-year-old journalist and her news site Rappler have become the target of legal action and probes after publishing stories critical of Duterte’s policies, including his campaign against illegal drugs that has killed thousands of people.
The penalty of six months to six years imprisonment has been meted for Ressa and Santos who were allowed to remain free after earlier posting bail.
They were also ordered to pay PPH200,000 (US$4,000) for moral damages and PHP200,000 (US$4,000) in exemplary damages to businessman Wilfredo Keng, the complainant in the case.
A 2012 article by Santos, claiming that Keng lent his sports utility vehicle to then Chief Justice Renato Corona, was the subject of the cyber libel case.
Santos also wrote in the same article that an intelligence report said that Keng had been under surveillance by the National Security Council for alleged involvement in human trafficking and drug smuggling.
Keng filed the cyber libel complaint in 2017, five years after the article was first posted and three years after it was supposedly re-posted due to typographical error.
Both Ressa and Rappler – which has exposed corruption, extrajudicial killings and online troll armies – have faced a series of charges over the past year. Most of the claims relate to allegations over the news site’s finances.
The arrest of Ressa prompted the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to warn in February 2019 that there appeared to be “a pattern of intimidation” of independent media in the Philippines. Duterte has dismissed Rappler as fake news.(Source: INQUIRER.net/The Guardian)