Robredo: Ressa conviction 'a threat to every dissenting voice' in PH

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 15) — For opposition lawmakers, rights groups, and media advocates, it is another bad day for press freedom following the conviction of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos, both found guilty of cyber libel.

However, darker days are ahead if the public does not fortify the defense for civil liberties and other essential rights, they said. Members of the opposition noted that repression will not stop at Ressa and Santos' guilty verdict.

Vice President Maria Leonor "Leni" Robredo said in a statement on Monday that threat to freedom of one is a threat to the freedom of all.

"Silencing, harassing, and weaponizing law against the media sends a clear message to every dissenting voice: Manahimik kayo, kung ayaw ninyong matulad sa kanila (Stay silent if you do not want to be like them)," she said.

Opposition senator Risa Hontiveros expressed the same sentiment, noting that any critic can be easily silenced at a crucial time.

"I urge everyone to speak out...We are complicit if we are silent," Hontiveros told the public.

Senator Francis Pangilinan noted that with the current political atmosphere of "repression and authoritarianism," the acquittal of Ressa and Santos would have been a surprise.

Senator Leila de Lima said her detention alone is just "one of the thousand ways" that the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte tries to instill fear in those "who fight for what is just and right."

"The decision to convict CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. for cyber libel (while certainly appealable) is but another demonstration of the Duterte government's weaponization of law against those who dare speak truth to power," she said.

De Lima, a staunch critic of the administration, has been detained for three years over illegal drug charges. She has vehemently denied the charges, describing them as fabricated.

Meanwhile, Gabriela Partylist noted that the incident is a "terrible development that may set forth more rabid attacks against media outfits who have earned the ire of Malacañang."

On Monday, the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 found Ressa and Santos guilty beyond reasonable doubt for violating the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 over an investigative story linking businessman Wilfredo Keng to alleged illegal activities, primarily human trafficking and drug smuggling.

Ressa and Santos were sentenced to jail for six months up to six years.

Rappler earlier maintained that the story, which had Santos' byline, was initially published months before the Cybercrime Prevention Act was passed. The prosecution had argued that the article was republished on February 19, 2014. Rappler maintained that it only made minor correction of typographical errors in the story at the time.

Rappler, which was originally charged in the suit, was declared to have no liability over the issue.

For Keng's legal counsel, holding Rappler accountable has given his client justice over the controversial article.

"Yung client ko, hindi mahalaga sa kanya ang monetary damages. Ang mahalaga nagkaroon ng hatol ang husgado na nagkamali ang Rappler, na hindi sila naging responsable sa pahayag nila ng mga krimen na inakusa nila sa kliyente ko," Atty Ryan Cruz told CNN Philippines' Balitaan, noting that the news organization did not get back to them to supposedly correct controversial details of the story.

[Translation: To my client, monetary damages do not matter much. What's important is the judge has decided that Rappler committed a wrongdoing, and they were not responsible with their words when they accused him of such crimes.]

International community alarmed

The international community, including rights groups and media advocates, expressed alarm over the incident.

International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney noted that the conviction was "an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines."

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, noted that Ressa's case "will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many other countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom.

Amnesty International cited the shutdown of media giant ABS-CBN alone is proof of "brazen vendetta against the press."

The network was forced off the air on May 5, following the expiry of its legislative franchise. It previously received backlash from President Rodrigo Duterte for supposedly failing to air his campaign ads.

Roque: Duterte supports press freedom

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque insisted during Monday's briefing that Duterte has nothing to do with Ressa's conviction, noting that he supports press freedom.

"Naniniwala po siya sa malayang pananalita at ang paninindigan niya, ang taong gobyerno ay hindi dapat onion-skinned, hinaharap ang puna ng taumbayan lalo na kung ito ay nanggagaling sa media," he said.

[Translation: The President believes in free speech, he maintains that public officials should not be onion-skinned and should face the criticisms of the public including those from the media.]

Rappler, which has been repeatedly called out for its critical reporting of the Duterte administration, is facing other court cases and complaints, including supposed tax violations and foreign ownership.

"Eleven times in a little more than a year, cases have been filed against Rappler, so yes, absolutely they're trying to pin me down and Rappler down," Ressa previously said.

Rappler appealed to the public to be on tighter watch for a free and independent press, as the ruling has made the space for free press and free speech "tighter and narrower."