Maria Ressa: Philippine journalist found guilty of cyber libel

  • Published
Media caption,

Ressa told the BBC that journalists all over the world were fighting a battle against populist authoritarian leaders

High-profile journalist Maria Ressa has been found guilty of libel in the Philippines in a case seen as a test of the country's media freedom.

The former CNN journalist is the head of a news site that's critical of strongman President Rodrigo Duterte.

A writer for the site, Rappler, was also convicted. Both have been released on bail pending appeal - but could face six years in prison.

Ressa denied the charges and claimed they were politically motivated.

But the president and his supporters have accused her, and her site, of reporting fake news.

In a country where journalists are under threat, Ressa's case became symbolic and closely-followed - both domestically and internationally.

"Rappler and I were not the only ones on trial," Ressa told the BBC after the verdict.

"I think what you're seeing is death by a thousand cuts - not just of press freedom but of democracy."

What was she accused of?

The case relates to an eight-year-old Rappler story alleging businessman Wilfredo Keng had links to illegal drugs and human trafficking. It also said he lent his car to a top judge.

The article was written by former Rappler journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr who on Monday was found guilty alongside Ressa.

The prosecution came under a "cyber-libel" law which came into force in September 2012 - four months after Rappler published the article.

But prosecutors said a correction to the story in 2014 - to fix a "typo" - meant the article was republished after the law had come into effect.

The judge on Monday said Rappler offered no proof to back up its allegations against Mr Keng.

Judge Rainelda Montea added that her verdict was based on evidence presented to the court - adding that freedom of the press "cannot be used as a shield" against libel.

While the 2012 law mainly targets cyber-crime, it was criticised at the time for threatening online freedom of expression and data security.

Image caption,
The Rappler boss says she will fight the verdict

Ressa, 56, and her colleague were allowed to remain free on bail, pending a possible appeal. But if the conviction stands, their convictions carry a sentence of up to six years.

"Our justice system was on trial today," Ressa said after the verdict. "And it just joined the kind of messaging that was pushed out on social media in 2016 [when Mr Duterte was elected]: journalist equals criminal."

Who is Maria Ressa?

Born in the Philippines, Ressa grew up in the US and only returned to the country in the 1980s after the fall of authoritarian leader Ferdinand Marcos.

A former CNN journalist, she founded Rappler in 2012. It is one of the few local sites to openly criticise the Duterte administration and its brutal war on drugs, which has claimed thousands of lives.

The media organisation is among the country's most popular news sites, in part because of its focus on a younger audience and embracing social media.

Rappler and Ressa have also been targeted in other court cases, ranging from tax evasion to foreign ownership violations.

At the scene

Howard Johnson, Philippines correspondent

I was directly behind Maria Ressa in court. She silently shook her head as the judge declared there had been no government influence on today's case.

She has long argued the case was politically-motivated - pointing to the 11 cases filed against Rappler in 2018, including charges of tax evasion and foreign ownership violations, as proof.

President Duterte once called Rappler a "fake news outlet" after being irked by reporting into his punitive policies, and alleged conflicts of interest in his inner circle - allegations he has always denied.

But lawyers for Wilfredo Keng insist today's case was about clearing the name of their client, after Rappler's allegations, citing an "intelligence report", that Mr Keng was involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling.

He has always denied the allegations.

Judge Rainelda Montesa said Rappler had failed to present the report to the court - and hadn't verified the claims allegedly contained within it.

How are journalists treated in the Philippines?

While freedom of the press is guaranteed under the constitution, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, says US-based Freedom House.

"Private militias, often hired by local politicians, silence journalists with complete impunity," says Reporters Without Borders.

Media caption,

Ressa told the BBC that journalists all over the world were fighting a battle against populist authoritarian leaders

Critics of President Duterte say that since he came to power, the media has been subject to pressure and retaliation from the government, if it criticises the administration too strongly.

"So much is at stake," Ressa told the BBC after the court decision. "Not just for journalists - but for Filipinos, for democracy.

"I think we're fighting the same battles that journalists all around the world are facing against populist authoritarian leaders that are hitting the messengers."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mr Duterte has called Rappler "fake news"

Last month, one of the country's leading broadcasters, ABS CBN went off air after it was ordered by the media regulator to stop operations while waiting for the renewal of its licence.

The channel has in the past angered President Duterte.

"With this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall," Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Regional Director, Nicholas Bequelin, said.

"It is time for the UN to urgently open an international investigation into the country's human rights crisis, in line with the recent conclusions of the UN Human Rights office itself."

The Philippines ranks 136th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index.

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Maria Ressa: "The battle for this generation will be the battle for truth"