ON JUNE 15, prominent Filipino journalist Maria Ressa was found guilty of cyber libel by a Manila court. She faces up to six years in prison and was fined 400,000 Philippine pesos ($8,000 USD). Ressa was convicted with Reynaldo Santos Jr., both of whom worked at Rappler, a news site Ressa founded.
According to The Hill, Santos originally wrote the story that led to him and Ressa being arrested (Ressa is the CEO of Rappler).
The story detailed former chief justice Renato Corona’s alleged links to businessman Wilfredo Keng, who was claimed to have ties to illegal drugs, human trafficking and murder. The BBC adds that President Rodrigo Duterte and his supporters have accused her and Rappler of spreading fake news.
The New York Times notes that critics of the decision believe that Ressa’s conviction is a blow to freedom of the press.
After the hearing, Ressa said in a press conference, “Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything. Are we going to lose freedom of the press? Will it be death by a thousand cuts, or are we going to hold the line so that we protect the rights that are enshrined in our constitution?
We’re at the precipice. If we fall over we’re no longer a democracy.” Ressa’s lawyer, Amal Clooney, stated, “Today a court in the Philippines became complicit in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse. This conviction is an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press and a blow to democracy in the Philippines.” In defense, Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, explained, “The president has said repeatedly that he has never filed a case of libel against a journalist despite his negative reporting. He believes in free speech, and believes that anyone who works in government should not be thin skinned.”
According to The Guardian, Ressa’s conviction has drawn worldwide attention and criticism. Reporters Without Borders condemned the decision and now ranks the Philippines at 136 out of 180 on its World Press Freedom Index. Amnesty International called for an end to the “harassment of Maria Ressa.” The U.S. State Department issued a brief statement citing its “concern” over the decision.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines stated that the decision “basically kills freedom of speech and of the press.” Ressa herself explained that the verdict should serve as a warning to countries led by populist leaders who have accused journalists of reporting fake news.
According to the New York Times, Ressa and Rappler have reported on the brutality of the Philippine Drug War and exposed internet misinformation, much to the dismay of Duterte and his supporters. The same Times article notes that Duterte has maintained a combative relationship with the press and has worked to suppress journalists he accuses of spreading fake news. In May, Duterte shut down ABS-CBN, which the New York Times cites as being the most influential news source in the country.
Duterte has repeatedly criticized Ressa and Rappler. The New York Times notes that he has accused Rappler of being backed by the CIA and banned Rappler reporter Pia Ranada from attending any political events. The Guardian adds that Rappler has been involved in at least 11 government investigations and court cases.
Duterte’s crackdown on the media in the Philippines is concerning. The Hill notes that freedom of the press is crucial in spreading important and truthful information whilst maintaining democracy. The Hill also tasked the U.S. government with helping the Philippines to restore freedom of the press and speaking out against Ressa’s conviction. The verdict serves as a warning to the rest of the world and a call to action to protect journalists and freedom of the press.
(Published by Organization For World Peace)