Court convicts Rappler CEO Ressa in cyber libel case

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 15) — A Manila court on Monday convicted online news organization Rappler's CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. in a cyber libel case filed by a businessman.

Rappler’s lawyer Atty. Theodore Te said they will file an appeal against the ruling of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46, which sentenced Ressa and Santos to up to 6 years in jail.

Both accused were also ordered to pay the complainant, businessman Wilfredo Keng, ₱200,000 pesos for moral damages, and ₱200,000 for exemplary damages.

Te said the court allowed Ressa and Santos to remain free on bail, using the same bail they previously posted.

The court, in its 37-page decision, found no corporate liability on the part of Rappler Incorporated.

"This is a pivotal moment for the Philippines, and a pivotal moment not just for our democracy but for the idea of what a free press means," Ressa said in a news conference immediately after the conviction was handed down, her voice sometimes quivering with emotion.

She said Rappler, which has been under attack for four years with a string of other cases against it, is meant to be a cautionary tale, to make others afraid. She appealed to journalists and Filipinos not to be afraid to use their rights because "if you don't challenge a brazen move to try to roll back the rights guaranteed under the constitution, we will lose them.”

Various media, human rights groups and lawmakers called out the conviction as an assault against press freedom and an attack against critics of the administration.

"This verdict is a sham and should be quashed," said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Regional Director, adding that "with this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall."

In a statement, Keng said the court's decision vindicated him, despite the damage already done.

"Today, with the judgment of conviction against Ressa and Santos promulgated by the Hon. Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, I have been vindicated, at least, to the extent possible considering that the damage had already been done. Even today, when the truth should have set me free, Rappler’s lies still resound after the bang of the gavel has faded away," he said.

Keng maintained he is innocent of the accusations against him and said his case has nothing to do with the government.

"This case is NOT a case of the government. I am a private citizen and this is a private suit. I filed my complaint prior to and independently of any case the Philippine Government may have filed against Ressa... This is not a fight against the Press Freedom, an institution I deeply respect and uphold.," added Keng.

He also said with his filing and winning the case assures Filipinos that "published falsehoods will not remain unchallenged and unchecked," but rather be dealt with by the law.

Meanwhile, Ryan Jan Cruz, Keng's lawyer, said they were pleased with the court's decision.

"Ikinatutuwa ng kliyente ko na nakamit niya ang katarungan na hindi niya nakamit sa Rappler at napilitan siyang hingin ito sa husgado," he said on CNN Philippines Balitaan.

[Translation: My client is happy that he was able to get the justice he did not get from Rappler and he was forced to seek this from the court.]

Cruz said his client was more concerned about the court deciding that Rappler made a mistake and was not responsible in its reporting, than over the damages awarded to him.

The charges against Ressa and Santos stem from a 2012 Rappler article which reported on Keng’s alleged connection to illegal activities. Keng filed the complaint in 2017, nearly five years after the article was posted on Rappler’s website.

“The article was published by Rappler, without observing the ethical standards of journalism. It contained malicious imputations of crimes, with bad intentions, purposely to malign, dishonor and discredit my character and good reputation,” the complaint read. Keng has also demanded ₱50 million in damages.

Rappler, however, said the story with Santos' byline only cited an intelligence report, as well as a 2002 news article which already reported on the same allegations.

In addition, the news organization maintained that Keng’s side was published and that he was “repeatedly asked” for comment by the reporter. The businessman has said that Rappler, Ressa and Santos never attempted to obtain his side or to fact-check the “baseless attacks” against him.

READ: Rappler CEO calls arrest 'abuse of power'

While the story was initially published months before the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 was passed, the prosecution had argued that the article was republished on February 19, 2014.

But according to Rappler, there were no substantial modifications made to the story, as the update only involved correction of typographical errors. Te has also noted that the temporary restraining order on the cybercrime law was still in effect when the story was updated, hence, the republication principle should not apply.

Te earlier said they are ready to bring the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Records from the Office of Cyber Crime show there have been 13 earlier cyber libel convictions in the country, three of which involved journalists.