from the an-attack-on-a-free-press dept

This is a real travesty. Reporter Maria Ressa (and research Rey Santos Jr.) have been convicted of criminal “cyber libel” in the Philippines, and now face fines and possibly years in jail for their reporting — a direct attack on free speech and a free press in the Philippines.

For a few years now, we’ve been reporting on the various attempts by the Filipino government to silence Maria Ressa, a famous reporter in the Philippines, who founded the news site, Rappler. Ressa is a force of nature, and has been reporting careful, detailed, but embarrassing articles about the Filipino government that has upset many people there. There were some trumped up “tax evasion” charges (based on the government misrepresenting the nature of a grant from the philanthropic Omidyar Network), but there have been a number of other questionable legal attacks as well. A year ago, we noted at least 11 questionable lawsuits, including one in which Ressa was arrested in early 2019 under claims of “criminal cyber libel” for an article about businessman Wilfredo Keng and his close connections to former chief justice of the Filipino Supreme Court Renato Corona. Keng claimed that parts of the article — that claimed he had “alleged links to illegal drugs and human trafficking” — were defamatory.

There were all sorts of problems with the charges, including that the “cyber libel” law in question was enacted four months after the story ran, and just the idea that there is such a thing as criminal, rather than civil defamation, should raise huge concerns, especially in a country like the Philippines that has free speech built into its Constitution (it’s their 4th Amendment and is modeled very closely on the US’s 1st Amendment: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances”).

You’d think that would make the cyber libel law unconstitutional, but so far the courts don’t seem to think so. The ruling, which can be appealed (and almost certainly will be), raises all sorts of questions. For example, as noted above, the law passed months after the article was published and the prosecutors convinced a judge that didn’t matter because Rappler later corrected a few typos in the article, and those corrections were done after the law was put in place — so therefore it seemed to count as a new publication. There was also the problem of the statute of limitations (it seems that’s referred to as the “prescription period” in the Philippines). The statue of limitations for libel is 1 year, and Keng’s complaint was filed 5 years after the article. But prosecutors played some bizarre legal games to say that “cyber libel” did not apply under standard libel laws in the Filipino code, but rather was a “special law” and as such, had a 12 year statute of limitations — an interpretation that had legal experts in the Philippines scratching their heads.

As for the actual claims, Keng did not dispute the key point of the article (regarding an SUV that he owned being used by the former chief justice), but rather was upset about statements concerning his alleged “shady past” which were based on two reports (including a government intelligence report they had obtained) that the reporters mentioned. However, Keng argued that those claims were false, and provided Rappler with a certificate from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency that apparently cleared him of any wrong doing. In response, Rappler claimed that the government intelligence report it had seen was not from the DEA, and they would investigate the DEA’s certification, though it appears that investigation was never completed.

But the judge seemed to think that was enough for cyber libel:

Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa faulted Rappler for not publishing a clarification, and said the “article was republished with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

“This clearly shows actual malice,” said the judge.

These phrases, again, all stem from US defamation law, but here they’re used in an upside down manner that would not be at all consistent with how defamation works in the US. Having government reports that you relied on in your reporting would generally mean there’s no actual malice in the US, because there would be the disclosed facts on which the statements were based, and the relying on those reports should protect them. But, again, because of the typo corrections, the judge bought into the prosecutors line that the article was “republished” after it had been sent the DEA report.

There are some other upside down things compared to US law, including the claim that a well known business person is not considered a “public figure,” meaning that there was a lower standard of proof.

The whole situation is likely to chill free speech and a free press in the Philippines, and that’s very unfortunate, especially at a time when the government there is accused of all sorts of questionable activities. The country’s VP and opposition leader, Leni Robredo, has already spoken out against the ruling:

On Monday, June 15, the Philippines’ opposition leader reiterated her Independence Day message that a “threat to the freedom of even a single Filipino is a threat to all of our freedoms.”

“Reports have come in regarding the guilty verdict against Maria Ressa. This is a chilling development… If the law and our government institutions can be brought to bear upon Ms Ressa, then we should be wary of what this means to the freedoms of ordinary citizens,” Robredo said in a statement.


Robredo, a known advocate for free speech and freedom of the press, said Ressa and Santos’ conviction is just the “latest instance of law being utilized to muzzle our free press” under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte.

“Silencing, harassing, and weaponizing law against the media sends a clear message to every dissenting voice: Keep quiet or you are next,” the Vice President.

That is the very nature of the chilling effects when free speech is under attack. One hopes that the convictions are overturned on appeal.

Filed Under: defamation, free speech, libel, maria ressa, philippines

Categories: Technology