“A Cautionary Tale”: Journalist Maria Ressa’s Conviction Seen as Blow to Philippines’ Press Freedom

Maria Ressa, CEO of the online news site Rappler, talks to the media in January 2018 in Manila, Philippines.

Maria Ressa, CEO of the online news site Rappler, talks to the media in January 2018 in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

June 15, 2020

Maria Ressa, a journalist in the Philippines who has been at the forefront of chronicling President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs through her news site, Rappler, was convicted on Monday alongside a reporter in a cyber libel case — a move seen as a blow to both press and broader freedoms by a government that has become increasingly aggressive in punishing criticism against the president, whether by journalists or private citizens.

“I appeal to Filipinos listening to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” Ressa said in a public statement following the announcement of her conviction. “Don’t be afraid — if you don’t exercise your rights, you will lose them.”

Ressa and reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. could face up to six years in prison. They are both appealing the convictions.

The cyber libel case is one of at least 11 court actions that have been filed against Ressa, Rappler or its staffers since Duterte became president in 2016— actions meant “to cow, to intimidate,” Ressa told FRONTLINE in an interview late last week. But she said that “all it has done is to make us stronger in our intent to continue to hold government to account.”

LISTEN: Maria Ressa, Duterte & The Fight For The Free Press

Rappler has not been the only press outlet targeted. On May 5, ABS-CBN, the country’s largest TV and radio news and entertainment network, was shut down by the national telecommunications commission after the network’s license expired — an unprecedented enforcement of the law. Duterte had previously threatened the network for its critical coverage of his war on drugs, saying in December 2019: “Your franchise will end next year. If you expect that to be renewed, I’m sorry. I will see to it that you’re out.”

Ressa’s cyber libel case was filed by Wilfredo Keng, a wealthy businessman who claimed that his reputation had been damaged by an article published by Rappler, the news site Ressa co-founded, in May 2012 — four months before the country’s cyber libel bill became law. In the Philippines, laws can’t be enforced retroactively, but the site corrected a spelling error on the story in 2014, changing the word “evation” to “evasion” — which Keng’s lawyers argued made it prosecutable under the cyber libel law.

“The justice system has been weaponized against press freedom,” said Sheila Coronel, a veteran Filipino journalist and director of investigative journalism at the Colombia Journalism School. Coronel said that Philippine government agencies, like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice, are employing regulatory tactics to take down media organizations. “We haven’t seen that concentration of attacks in the Philippines for a long time,” Coronel said.

The Duterte administration has denied having a hand in the shutdown of ABS-CBN or Maria Ressa’s conviction on Monday. Wilfredo Keng, the businessman who sued Ressa for cyber libel, issued a statement saying he did not oppose press freedom.

But increased pressure on government critics isn’t just falling on journalists. Private citizens critical of Duterte have also recently been arrested under the cyber libel law.

A salesman who called Duterte “crazy” and an “a–hole” in a Facebook post was arrested by police in May. The same month, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Philippine equivalent to the FBI, arrested a public school teacher for tweeting an unrealistic 50-million peso reward to assassinate the president. That same week, the NBI arrested a construction worker offering a 100-million peso bounty for Duterte.

In April, the Philippine government requested that a Filipino caregiver working in Taiwan be deported back to the Philippines for Facebook posts criticizing the Duterte administration’s response to COVID-19 that the Philippine government called “willful posting of nasty and malevolent materials against Duterte.”  The government of Taiwan denied the request.

As for the Philippine press, the crisis is breeding a generation of reporters who are preparing themselves for a fight.

“I am hopeful that we will fight back, that journalists will hold the line,” said Lian Buan, Rappler’s courts reporter. Buan said many senior journalists worked under tough constraints of martial law under Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 80s. “They came out stronger,” Buan said. “If they can do that in 1980s, why can’t we do it again?”

Ressa’s story will be featured in a new documentary, A Thousand Cuts, that will see a summer theatrical release and a fall FRONTLINE broadcast.

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