'Free press, free speech narrower': Rappler slams cyber libel verdict on Ressa

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 15) — Online news organization Rappler slammed the guilty verdict a Manila court handed down Monday on CEO Maria Ressa and former writer-researcher Reynaldo Santos in a cyber libel case involving businessman Wilfredo Keng.

"This ruling, coupled with the cybercrime law, has made the space for a free press, free speech, and free expression even tighter and narrower," Rappler said in a statement.

It said that the "historic" decision, handed down during a pandemic, was the first verdict on one of the many court cases faced by the news organization since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016.

"[Ressa] completed the trial in only 8 months, possibly the fastest libel trial in recent history," Rappler said.

"The decision today marks not the rule of law, but the rule of law twisted to suit the interests of those in power who connive to satisfy their mutually beneficial personal and political agenda," it added.

Media, public should stay vigilant

Rappler also called on the public, including media colleagues, to be on tighter watch for a free and independent press.

"This is not just about Maria or Rey or Rappler," it said. "This is about fundamental rights of every citizen who refuses to be intimidated by the powerful who do wrong and whom they dare criticize and expose."

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said in a statement that the guilty verdict "kills freedom of speech and of the press."

"But we will not be cowed. We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms," NUJP added.

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.

Ressa and Santos were sentenced to jail for six months up to six years. Rappler, which was originally charged in the suit, was declared to have no liability over the issue.

In its 37-page decision, the court denied its action curtails press freedom.

"The right to free speech and freedom of the press cannot and should not be used as shield against accountability," it added.

While the story 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.

In a press briefing, Ressa said that the verdict is "not unexpected," but they will keep fighting.

"Are we a democracy or not? Let us do our jobs," she said.

"For someone who is doing his job, it could be not just me, but other people who are doing their jobs properly could be in the same situation that I am in right now," Santos added.