Rappler and Nobel Peace Prize Recipient Maria Ressa Face Legal Setbacks

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Maria Ressa, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning co-founder and CEO of Rappler, in a still image from the 2021 FRONTLINE documentary "A Thousand Cuts." Ressa and Rappler are facing legal setbacks including a shutdown order and a cyber-libel conviction.

Maria Ressa, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning co-founder and CEO of Rappler, in a still image from the 2021 FRONTLINE documentary "A Thousand Cuts." Ressa and Rappler are facing legal setbacks including a shutdown order and a cyber-libel conviction.

July 13, 2022

Rappler, the independent news site co-founded by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa and subject of the 2021 FRONTLINE documentary A Thousand Cuts, has been hit with major legal setbacks in recent weeks. In late June, the Philippine government took steps toward shutting down the website. Then, on July 8, the country’s Court of Appeals upheld a cyber-libel conviction against Ressa, Rappler’s CEO.

Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr., a former Rappler researcher-writer, were originally convicted by a lower court in 2020, in a case brought by a Filipino businessman over a 2012 Rappler story. Last week’s affirmation of that ruling increased the original sentencing for Ressa and Santos, both of whom are currently in the Philippines, to a maximum of more than six and a half years of jail time.

Rappler plans to take the case to the country’s Supreme Court. “While the decision is unfortunate, it is also a good opportunity for the Supreme Court to take a second look at the constitutionality of cyber libel and the continuing criminalization of libel, especially in light of the freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” read a statement from Rappler posted on Twitter July 8.

“The latest judgment by a court in the Philippines shows that Maria has been considered guilty until proven innocent — and then prevented from proving her innocence,” Amal Clooney, who co-leads Ressa’s international legal team, wrote in a statement emailed to FRONTLINE. “I hope that the Philippines Supreme Court will now set things right — and restore the country’s constitutional commitment to freedom of speech.”

FRONTLINE has reached out to the Court of Appeals for comment on this developing story.

The cyber-libel conviction came on the heels of a June 28 order from the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission, reaffirming its 2018 decision to revoke Rapplers certificates of incorporation — a move that effectively would shut down the news site. Rappler had appealed the 2018 decision at the time.

“We have plans A through Z. Our goal is to continue holding the line,” Ressa said in a June 29 story published on Rappler following the SEC order. “We’re not gonna voluntarily give up our rights, and we really shouldn’t. Absolutely we will continue to operate business as usual.”

Listen: Maria Ressa on The FRONTLINE Dispatch

The SEC issued its June 28 order just days before the end of President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term in office. During his administration, Duterte cracked down on press freedom in the Philippines, with Rappler a top target for its coverage of the president’s deadly war on drugs, as seen in A Thousand Cuts.

When it first revoked Rappler’s licenses in 2018, the SEC cited a violation of the Philippines’ ban on foreign-owned and -controlled mass media companies. The original SEC order stated that, by issuing Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs) to Omidyar Network in 2015, Rappler had granted control to the U.S.-based investment firm established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Other major Philippine media companies, including ABS-CBN and GMA, have used PDRs as an investment tool without similar actions from the SEC, according to news reports. Francis Lim, the former president of the Philippine Stock Exchange and current legal counsel to Rappler, told ABS-CBN in 2020 that PDRs give holders the right to receive dividends but do not mean holders own shares of a company.

Rappler maintained that position in the wake of the SEC’s latest order. “We do not admit that the ownership of the PDRs by the foreigners equates to ownership or equity interest in Rappler Inc. or Rappler Holdings Co.,” Lim said in a June 29 press conference.

But according to a June 29 statement from the SEC, Rappler’s “PDRs included a provision requiring the Filipino stockholders of Rappler to seek the approval of Omidyar Network on fundamental corporate matters, a violation of the absolute constitutional and statutory prohibition on foreign control of mass media.”

In response to the SEC’s 2018 order, Omidyar Network donated its PDRs to Rappler’s Filipino staff. “We have taken this action in order to address the unwarranted ruling made by the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission,” Omidyar wrote in a press release at the time. “Omidyar Network never had any control or influence over [Rappler’s] management, operations, or editorial policy.”

When Rappler appealed the original order in 2018, the Philippines’ Court of Appeals upheld the SEC findings but ordered a legal review of Omidyar’s PDR donation. In 2021, the SEC submitted the results of its review, finding that the donation didn’t fix what it considered to be the original violation: Rappler was still at fault for issuing PDRs to a foreign company, according to the SEC.

Marichu Lambino, a media law expert from the Philippines, parsed the SEC’s June 28 order in an email to FRONTLINE: “Even if the PDR has already been transferred to Filipinos, its previous and past use is considered by the SEC as ground for punishment,” she wrote. But Lambino said she believed the SEC overstepped its authority and only has the power to dissolve a company if it can prove fraud.

In a June 28 internal memo to staff, Rappler wrote, “We will adapt, adjust, survive, and thrive.” That same day, the company also signaled plans to appeal the SEC’s latest order in a statement posted on Twitter: “We are entitled to appeal this decision and will do so, especially since the proceedings were highly irregular.”

At the June 29 press conference, Lim said it was possible the SEC could implement the shutdown order while a Rappler appeal was underway. “But based on our study, the SEC cannot enforce this decision pending appeal,” he said, calling the SEC’s order “not final.” The company had 15 days from June 28 to file an appeal, Lim said. As of July 13, it was unclear if an appeal had been filed.

Also as of July 13, Rappler‘s website was still live online in the Philippines and in the U.S.

Watch: A Thousand Cuts 

When reached for comment, the SEC referred FRONTLINE to its online statement, which read in part: “The contentions raised by Rappler and RHC have been squarely and adequately addressed by the SEC and the [Court of Appeals] in their respective decisions, resolutions and orders, including the latest issuance from the Commission.”

Rappler drew the attention of Duterte when, in the months after his 2016 election, the site investigated a slew of killings believed to be connected to Duterte’s bloody war on suspected drug dealers and users. Ressa also published a series of stories examining the rapid-fire spread of pro-Duterte disinformation and soon became the focus of online threats. Duterte has said journalists “are not exempted from assassination.”

Ressa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2021 along with the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, vowed she and Rappler would carry on in the face of online harassment and numerous court actions. “We will not duck; we will not hide. We will hold the line,” she said in A Thousand Cuts.

Duterte’s administration ended June 30 with the inauguration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the deceased former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. who ruled for years under martial law and was overthrown in 1986. Marcos Jr., also known as Bongbong Marcos, was voted into office in a May 2022 landslide victory alongside vice presidential candidate Sara Duterte, daughter of the outgoing president.


Bruce Gil

Bruce Gil, Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Newmark Journalism School Fellowships, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@brucgl

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