Journalist Maria Ressa was convicted Monday of cyber libel and faces up to six years behind bars in a case that watchdogs say marks a dangerous erosion of press freedom under President Rodrigo Duterte.
Ressa, 56, and her news site Rappler have been the target of a series of criminal charges and probes after publishing stories critical of Duterte's policies, including his drug war that has killed thousands.
On Monday, the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 convicted Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. in a high-profile verdict handed down as the administration came under increasing fire for targeting its critics.
Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa sentenced Ressa, chief executive officer of Rappler, and Santos to six months and a day to up to six years in jail over charges filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng in a case that tested the eight-year-old Anti-Cybercrime Law.
They were allowed to post bail pending an appeal and ordered to pay P200,000 in moral damages and another P200,000 in exemplary damages.
The case stemmed from an article published by the news site in 2012 that cites an "intelligence report" that allegedly linked Keng, the private complainant, to human trafficking and drug smuggling.
Keng denied the allegations and sued Ressa and Santos for cyber libel.
The conviction of the former CNN journalist was the culmination of a case that has drawn international concern.
It was not immediately clear how long she would actually have to serve if the conviction becomes final.
"We are going to stand up against any kind of attacks against press freedom," Ressa told journalists after the conviction in Manila.
"I began as a reporter in 1986 and I have worked in so many countries around the world, I have been shot at and threatened but never this kind of death by a thousand cuts," she said.
Monday's verdict decided a trial that stemmed from a businessman's 2017 complaint over a Rappler story five years earlier about his alleged ties to a then-judge on the nation's top court.
Ressa, who Time magazine named as a Person of the Year in 2018, did not write the article and government investigators initially dismissed the businessman's allegation.
But state prosecutors later filed charges against her and Reynaldo Santos, the former Rappler journalist who wrote it, under a controversial cyber crime statute aimed at online offenses such as stalking and child pornography.
Santos was also found guilty on Monday and allowed to remain free on bail.
Duterte's government has said the case is not politically motivated and that authorities must enforce the law, even against journalists.
But rights groups and press advocates say the libel charge along with a series of tax cases against Rappler, and a government move to strip the news site of its license, amount to state harassment.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) described the conviction as a “dark day.”
In a statement posted on Facebook, NUJP said the conviction of Ressa and Santos killed freedom of speech and of the press. but journalists will not be cowed.
“This is a dark day not only for independent Philippine media but for all Filipinos. The verdict basically kills freedom of speech and of the press,” NUJP said.
“But we will not be cowed. We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms,” NUJP also said.
"Ressa… and the Rappler team are being singled out for their critical reporting of the Duterte administration," Amnesty International said.
"With this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall."
Human Rights Watch said the case "will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom.”
The Philippines has fallen in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index to 136 out of 180 nations and territories.
Ressa's verdict comes just over a month after government regulators forced off the air ABS-CBN, the nation's top broadcaster, following years of threats by Duterte to shut down the network.
Both Rappler and ABS-CBN have reported extensively on Duterte's anti-drugs campaign in which police have gunned down alleged dealers and users in operations condemned by rights groups.
Some of the crackdown's highest-profile critics have wound up behind bars, including Senator Leila de Lima, who is serving three years in jail on drug charges she insists were fabricated to silence her.
In 2018, Duterte denounced Rappler as a "fake news outlet" and subsequently banned Ressa and her colleagues from his public engagements.
The small courtroom of Branch 46 accommodated only the defendants, the complainant, one lawyer from each of the firms representing them, and three reporters.
Keng, the businessman who filed the complaint, earlier demanded P50 million in damages from Rappler.
Ressa faces seven other charges before the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA), and Pasig Regional Trial Court (RTC), stemming from the mother case over the company's Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs), which the Court of Appeals (CA) has ruled to be already cured.
The Manila court said Rappler did not verify the information about Keng, nor did it publish his side.
Malacanang on Monday said that President Duterte has nothing to do with Ressa's conviction.
Palace spokesmann Harry Roque said Duterte is a supporter of press freedom and never filed a libel case against any journalists that is critical of his administration.
Roque also said the President has never been involved in any attempt to curtail press freedom in the country—even though his subordinates have filed cases against his critics.
“The President supports free speech and free press. I hope this is clear,” Roque said.
He also said Ressa was “barking [up] the wrong tree” when she said her conviction was a cautionary tale for the Philippine media.
But Vice President Leni Robredo on Monday said Ressa's conviction was a threat to the freedom of all Filipino people.
"Reports have come in regarding the guilty verdict against Maria Ressa. This is a chilling development," she said in a statement.
"A threat to the freedom of even a single Filipino is a threat to all of our freedom. 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 freedom of ordinary citizens," she added.
A statement issued by Rappler said Ressa and Santos were convicted over a case built on “flimsy ground: a corrected typographical error.”
The original article was published before the cybercrime law was enacted, but state prosecutors said the act of correcting a typographical error amounted to “republication” of the article.
“Today’s verdict sets a dangerous precedent not only for journalists but for everyone online. It weakens the ability of journalists to hold power to account as the one-year prescription period of libel is extended to 12 years,” Rappler said. “Even before the cybercrime law took effect, Filipino journalists and press freedom advocates had been pushing for the decriminalization of libel. This ruling, coupled with the cybercrime law, has made the space for a free press, free speech, and free expression even tighter and narrower.”
Senator Panfilo Lacson, an administration ally, said Ressa and Santos can always appeal the decision before the appellate court, and if necessary, the Supreme Court.
Saying he was unfamiliar with the details of the case, he declined to comment on the decision.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said court decisions are based on evidence and the law. Ressa, he said, can always appeal to the higher courts.
Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros, however, said the attacks on the free press and journalists are a danger to democracy and to Filipinos.
“This year alone, and while we're responding to a global pandemic, we have witnessed the shutdown of a far-reaching media institution and the weaponization of the law against a journalist doing unbiased reporting on extrajudicial killings in the country,” she said.
She said Ressa's conviction sends a chilling message to all – if you are a critic, the government can close you down and silence you.
"I urge everyone to speak out… We are complicit if we are silent," she said.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said under the current political atmosphere of repression and authoritarianism, it would have been a surprise if Ressa and Cruz were acquitted.
The silencing of critics and the attacks on the media has been going on for three years now, he said.
“Unless we stand up, speak out, and vigorously oppose the tyranny in our midst, their conviction will not be the last,” he aid.
De Lima said the decision to convict Ressa and Santos was but another demonstration of the Duterte government's weaponization of law against those who dare speak truth to power.
"Jailing me for over three years now is only one of the thousand sinister ways they are causing fear in the hearts of Filipinos who fight for what is just and right,” she said.
“They will not stop at going after critics and human rights defenders. To them, journalists too must be silenced. But we will not allow it,” she said.
Opposition lawmakers on Monday denounced Ressa's conviction.
"Press freedom received another devastating blow from the improvident and barren conviction of Rappler’s Maria Ressa for alleged commission of cyber libel even before it was criminalized, and the prosecution for which has long proscribed," Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said.
Since cyber libel is libel defined under the Revised Penal Code (RPC) committed through a computer system, the prescription of cyber libel is one year as provided for in Article 90 of the RPC.
Lagman aid the purported cyber libel for which Ressa was convicted was allegedly published or committed in May 2012 but the case was filed in 2017 or only five years later.
"The conviction is a tragic commentary on the judiciary’s succumbing to the repressive campaign of the Executive," said Lagman.
House Deputy Minority leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate shared a similar view, saying the court's verdict "is a source of serious and grave concerns, especially in the context of the growing attacks now on the basic rights of our peoples."
"This decision is another nail on the press freedom coffin and is very dangerous not just for journalists but for everybody who uses social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This verdict can be used to haul into court and jail anyone who exposes wrongdoing in government," Zarate said.
"Taken into the context of the ABS-CBN shutdown and the railroading of the new terror bill, this can be taken as the tightening of our civil liberties particularly that of press freedom and the freedom of expression. This is an ominous sign of where the Duterte administration is going to bring our country. The people must fight back," Zarate said.
Assistant Minority Leader and ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro said the conviction spoke of "troubling times" for press freedom and basic human rights.
"Journalists and even ordinary people posting on social media continue to be victims of this administration's attempt to silence all critics, dissenters and anyone who is not satisfied with the policies of the Duterte administration," Castro said.
The human rights group Karapatan said Ressa and Santos's conviction had dire implications on the state of press freedom and the people’s right to information and freedom of expression in the Philippines.
“It sends the dangerous message that journalists who expose misdeeds of those in power are more vulnerable to retaliation to silence them. It also sends an even more dangerous message to the public that anyone and everyone can be criminalized on their views and opinions,” the group said.