Maria Ressa’s conviction and the state of press freedom in the Philippines

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Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

On June 15, the Philippines witnessed an arbitrary attack on press freedom. Maria Ressa, the CEO of Rappler — an online news website, was convicted for cyber libel along with Reynaldo Santos, a former writer-researcher at Rappler. The two were released on bail pending appeal, but stand the risk of facing six to seven years in prison.

On June 29, their lawyers submitted a 132-page motion to appeal Maria and Reynaldo’s conviction before a court in Manila, urging the decision’s reconsideration by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa. As stated in the motion, Judge Montesa committed at least 13 errors in her verdict.

“We have to acknowledge the real uses of criminal libel if we are to be consistent to protect speech made to make public officers and government accountable. Criminal libel has an in terrorem effect that is inconsistent with the contemporary protection of the primordial and necessary right of expression enshrined in our Constitution,” the motion read.

As journalists and advocates of press freedom closely monitor the case, it is pertinent to understand why the Philippines — a country known for its vibrant democracy in the Southeast Asian region — is going through a press freedom turmoil under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. What happened with Maria and Rappler began with a a typo — a fixed one, that is.

When speaking with CFWIJ about the current state of journalism in the Philippines, Lian Buan, a Rappler employee shared that the Philippines’ government is now mimicking the restrictive ways of other authoritative countries in the region.

“The Philippines is supposed to have one of the more vibrant democracies within Southeast Asian or the Asian region at large. It feels like now we are trying to follow the footsteps of the more restrictive governments,” she said.

Lian shared examples of Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand, as all of the countries have been under immense criticism for their laws suppressing freedom of the press in the region. She added how the Philippines is now on its way to implement an anti-terror law, which will worsen freedom of speech and expression in the country.

What stops the government to charge and convict Maria and Reynoldo is that the anti-terror law has not yet been implemented.

The Philippines’ government stretched the prescription period of libel from one to 12 years. For instance, if someone publishes a post or content online within the last 12 years, they are at a risk of being sued for.

Kath Cortez, a Filipino freelance journalist covering politics and governance, spoke with CFWIJ shedding light on how the possibility of the Anti-Terrorism Law makes it impossible for journalists to practice their profession without the fear of being ostracized.

“As a journalist who covers politics and governance as well as war and conflict, I must say that this administration abhors criticism and dissent of its own people. The current administration recently proposed the Anti-Terrorism Law as an effort to suppress the growing sentiment of the public due to poor government service, widespread killings under the umbrella of government’s War on Drugs including the propagation of false news and information,” she said

Kath added that the law “practically cancels all the protection of rights of Filipinos including journalists guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. These will eventually kill the freedom of the press, the freedom of expression; consider journalist as a terrorist and our critical reportage as an act of terrorism.”

The case against Maria and Reynoldo is also rooted in a 2012 investigative article — focused on justice Renato Corona’s use of a vehicle registered under the name of businessman Wilfredo Ken, who is known for alleged connection to illegal activities — produced by the online news website on May 29, 2012.\

Even though the article was published two years before the country’s cyber libel law came into effect, Rappler was taken to the court for the correction they made to the story, after Keng filed a cyber libel complaint in October 2017.

Keng claimed that “the article was published by Rappler without observing the ethical standards of journalism. It contained malicious imputations of crimes, with bad intentions, purposely to malign, dishonor and discredit my character and good reputation.”

In February 2018, Maria and Reynaldo filed counter-affidavits to the complaint, which argued that “no cyber libel took place as the investigative report was published four months before the enactment of RA 10175. No criminal law is retroactive.” They further argued that “online libel “is not a “new crime” and is the same as the old crime of libel in the 1930 Revised Penal Code (RPC). Article 90 of the RPC extinguishes criminal liability within one year.”

Through the case, Rappler continued to be dragged in the mud using the law as a weapon. In February 2019, Maria was arrested on grounds of cyber libel and spent the night in the National Bureau of Investigation’s (NBI) custody and posted bail before a court in Manila the next day.

Apart from being the head of Rappler, Maria is known for her courageous journalism and speaking truth to power. President Duterte and his supporters have always been very vocal about their dislike towards Maria, accusing her of disseminating fake news via Rappler.

As if this was not enough for an accusation, Duterte also claimed that the website was funded and owned by an entity in the United States — deeming it to be fulfilling agendas of the west in the Philippines. Rappler was, therefore, also investigated by the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in August 2017, which led to the cancellation of its registration by January 2018.

However, the website fought back and appealed against the baseless allegations. It continues to operate following an under-appeal status of the decision till date. the website continued to use their platform to inform the public and committed to holding the powerful to account. They wrote, “We will hold the line.”

Advocates of press freedom around the world condemned the victimization that Maria and Rappler were being subjected to. However, Duterte’s administration was adamant to suppress the website’s critical reporting on the government, as Maria was, yet again, detained on arrival at Manila’s international airport in March 2019. She was granted bail after paying P90,000.

When responding to the press after being rearrested in 2019, Maria said, “Obviously this is yet another abuse of my rights. I am being treated like a criminal when my only crime is to be an independent journalist.”

The long trail of events challenged Maria and her news organization, but she continued to fight back. Maria won a separate libel case filed by John Castriciones, the Agrarian Reform Secretary, after his complaint was dismissed for lack of probable cause by the Quezon City prosecutor.

Sharing her views in the aftermath of Maria’s conviction and the deteriorating state of press freedom in the Philippines, Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon — the opinion editor at Rappler, said that it is going to be a very steep uphill battle for everyone — Rappler, the Philippines, and basically any nation whose press freedom is under threat.

“Rappler, in particular, is facing the kind of government that will do everything it takes to subdue its critics, and it’s really just a matter of just doing our jobs regardless of the threats and intimidation thrown our way. Granted, that’s easier said than done, but this has always been a matter of will anyway,” she said and added that it is even more distressing given that the country is in the middle of a pandemic.

The weaponization of law has instilled a sense of fear and has placed immense risk on journalists who are merely doing their jobs.

“There’s a term experts and academics use: lawfare = law as warfare. The government’s brazen legal acrobatics will make your head spin. Trumped-up charges, ridiculous loopholes, etc. They’re making a mockery of our legal system and our Constitution, and that’s very frightening,” said Marguerite.

While Lian said that the threat (to freedom of speech) is veiled. “It is not an open threat and it is not a policy that is outrightly violating our freedom of speech guaranteed under the constitution.”

She added that the weaponization of law is very dangerous, as it does not directly impact those within the masses.

“It is very easy to weaponise the law because it is so foreign that even the more educated ones have a hard time understanding it. It is such an exclusive and elite discussion, which is only understood by a small group of people,” she said and added that maybe that is the challenge journalists and civic leaders face — making the law understandable to people and explaining its repercussions following its weaponization.

Kath also expressed her concerns about Maria and Reynoldo’s conviction following the usage of law to attack the press.

“I see the case of Maria and Reynoldo as a manifestation of how the people in position and the government, per se use its power to weaponize the law to, of course, stifle criticism and dissent. This reality does not spare journalists with critical reportage to become subject or target of intimidation to silence the media community and soon the entire citizenry once they decide to call out government abuse,” she said.

Kath further added that the emphasis of this is the continuing “Culture of Impunity” in the Philippines from the effort to shut down a big network to never-ending threats and harassments of journalists even if in the middle of this Pandemic.

Rappler was not the only media outlet to have come under Duterte’s ire. The country’s biggest media network, ABS-CBN was also shut down for their critical reporting against the government.

According to Marguerite, the shutdown of ABS-CBN has “deprived many Filipinos living in remote areas of the crucial information they need at this time. It really goes to show that an attack on press freedom is an attack on all citizens too.”

Looking at the broader Asian region, the state of press freedom is much worse than what it is like in the Philippines. Most countries across the region do not provide a viable climate for press freedom without being subjected to scrutiny.

Following her years of experience and expertise on freedom of speech and expression, CFWIJ reached out to Kirsten Han — a Singapore-based journalist and activist — to understand the struggles of journalists across Southeast Asia.

“Journalists in Southeast Asia often have to struggle against oppression and censorship on many levels, from self-censorship due to entrenched climates of fear, to pressure from co-opted editors, employers, or publishers, to direct repercussions or intimidation,” she said.

While Marguerite deemed culture to be the reason why the Asian region lags behind in terms of press freedom.

“Many of us are raised to keep our more critical opinions to ourselves, to keep the status quo instead of shaking things up. That helps give way to the kind of government that can do things with impunity, including silencing the press whenever it displeases them,” she said.

Marguerite added that the region has a history of strongman leadership. Apart from Duterte, Indonesia is governed by Suharto, and Malaysia by Mahathir Mohammad. While two Reuters journalists were jailed in Myanmar because of the military regime.

Kirsten shared her views on Maria’s conviction, stating that she was not surprised but was immensely disappointed when she found out about the decision.

“I think the erosion of press freedom in the Philippines is really troubling, and unfortunately when the situation deteriorates in one country, it can embolden governments and/or powerful people in other places to also chip away at press freedom in their own contexts,” she said.

Kirsten also added that not only in the Philippines, but journalists everywhere have to start worrying about cyber harassment and trolling, which not only wastes time and resources, but can also take a toll on their mental health and emotional well-being.

She said, “From observation, I’ve found this to only be even more intense when the journalist in question is a woman. It just adds yet another layer of trouble and worry on top of a job that can already be very stressful.”

Given the repressive ways of the Duterte administration and the overall state of press freedom across the Asian region, journalists remain vulnerable to being victimized for their work. In such a situation, those aspiring to pursue journalism may end up questioning the profession. However, both Marguerite and Lian at Rappler believe that the fight to #HoldTheLine is not one to be lost.

“I believe international support is key. It’s not only locals who should hold our government accountable, but the global community as well, because what happens in one country can certainly set a precedent for other countries. It’s important that Rappler keeps doing its job in the face of everything that’s been happening, but we also need the global community to recognize what we’ve been up against and help us shine the light on the injustices in our country,” said Marguerite.

While Lian placed her hope in the younger generation of journalists, whom she stated will also stand up against the oppressors of press freedom, just like their seniors did in the past.

“Filipinos again have the chance of showing the world that if our freedom is threatened, we will fight back; we will push back. Maria’s crisis presents us with an opportunity (to do so). We, especially the younger ones, are very hopeful that we can probably do it again with the help of the internet, which is now more powerful and we have a chance to use that to our advantage,” she said.

The Coalition For Women In Journalism also supports and upholds the values Maria and Rappler have instilled within the sphere of journalism. Speaking truth to power and standing up against oppressors of press freedom should not apply to the Philippines only.

We believe that the press must not be restricted using the chains of law and strongly condemn the weaponization of legal tactics to threaten the many Maria and Reynoldo around the world. We, too, #HoldTheLine in solidarity.

This report was originally published by The Coalition For Women In Journalism

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