One of the most prominent journalists in the Philippines has been found guilty of “cyber libel” and could face up to six years in prison in a case that was held up as symbolic of the fight for press freedom in the country.
Maria Ressa, an award-winning former CNN journalist who founded and edited the popular online news website Rappler, was convicted over a 2012 article about a powerful businessman.
Ressa has emerged as one of the leading voices criticising the brutal policies of the country’s authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte, since he came to power in 2016, and Mr Duterte has picked out Rappler for criticism on a number of occasions, calling it a “fake news outlet”.
The libel case was brought against Ressa and Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr by businessman Wilfredo Keng. Rappler had published a news story on 29 May 2012 that linked Mr Keng to illegal activities including corruption, drug dealing, human trafficking and murder.
The article cited an unspecified intelligence report as its source, but Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa said in a 36-page ruling that Rappler had failed to present the report or “a scintilla of proof that they verified [its] imputations” to the court.
Mr Keng has always denied the allegations. He welcomed the ruling on Monday, and said that it vindicated him and cleared his name, “which Ressa, with one click of a button, attempted to destroy”.
When convicting Ressa and her reporter, the judge said the case was not an attack on the freedom of the press in the Philippines, and that the exercise of a freedom “should and must be used with due regard to the freedom of others”.
She also declared that the Duterte government had had no influence on the case.
Ressa has been granted bail for 15 days, pending an appeal. If she does not appeal, then she will receive sentencing and could face up to six years in prison.
Named one of Time magazine’s persons of the year in 2018, she has consistently accused the government of using legal cases to try and silence Rappler, which has maintained a particular focus on the excesses of Mr Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign, during which police have killed thousands of people.
Rappler and its staff have faced a total of 11 different legal proceedings since Mr Duterte came to power, including accusations of tax evasion and receiving foreign funding.
Ressa told a news conference after her conviction that the verdict was “devastating” and said Philippine press freedom and democracy were facing “death by a thousand cuts”.
“We’re at the precipice; if we fall over we’re no longer a democracy,” she said. “We will keep fighting,” she added, and appealed to other journalists and Filipinos to carry on “holding power to account”.
The fact that a case could even be brought against Rappler over the May 2012 article essentially came down to a minor technicality. The cybercrime law under which Ressa and Santos Jr were convicted was only passed in September 2012 – four months after the story in question was published online.
Lawyers for Rappler said the law could not be applied retroactively, and also argued that the Philippine legal system requires a libel complaint to be filed within one year of the alleged offence. Mr Keng lodged his complaint in 2017.
However, the Department of Justice argued that a small update to the story in February 2014, which Rappler said was to correct a “typo” in one word and with no other changes, meant that it came under the remit of the new law.
The court accepted this, and that because the case was brought under the cybercrime law and not the traditional libel law, complaints could be accepted up to 12 years after the alleged offence.
International rights groups condemned the verdict on Monday, with Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson calling it a “a frontal assault on freedom of the press that is critical to protect and preserve Philippine democracy”.
“The verdict against Maria Ressa highlights the ability of the Philippines’ abusive leader to manipulate the laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices whatever the ultimate cost to the country,” he said.
Ressa, who is a dual US-Filipino citizen, was represented by a legal team that included the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. Ms Clooney called the conviction “an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines”.
“I hope that the appeals court will set the record straight in this case. And that the United States will take action to protect their citizen and the values of their constitution,” she said in a statement. American politicians have previously criticised what they called harassment of the press.
Amnesty International called the verdict a “sham” and said that it “should be quashed”. “With this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific regional director.
Mr Duterte has not just hit out at Rappler in his public statements, with the president going after other critical media including the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a leading daily, and ABS-CBN, the country’s largest TV network.
ABS-CBN, which had criticised Mr Duterte, had to stop broadcasts last month after its licence was not renewed by the government’s telecommunications regulator. The network’s case for renewal is currently being heard in the Philippine parliament.
This year, the World Press Freedom index saw the Philippines slip two places, to 136th out of 180 countries.