A court in the Philippines convicted the founder of a news website critical of President Rodrigo Duterte on charges of “cyber libel” on Monday and sentenced her to at least six months and up to six years in prison.
Maria Ressa, founder of the Philippine news outlet Rappler, and former Rappler journalist Reynaldo Santos were declared guilty of the cybercrime by the same Manila trial court. The two have posted bail and can appeal the case up to the Philippine supreme court.
Rappler is one of the Philippines’ most popular news outlets. Ressa gained international acclaim in the wake of the criminal proceedings against her for Rappler’s reporting, named alongside others as a Time Person of the Year in 2018, when the magazine honored the persecuted journalist.
According to the report, the case stems from a May 2012 Rappler article written by Santos in which he alleged that Filipino businessman Wilfredo Keng “loaned vehicles” to late Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona, impeached in 2012 for “undeclared wealth.” According to the Nikkei Asian Review, the article claimed that Keng had been “under surveillance” by the Philippines’ National Security Council for his alleged involvement in illegal activities including “human trafficking, drug smuggling, and murder.”
Keng denied the allegations and, in 2017, filed a complaint against the news outlet. With businesses in the Philippines and China, Keng said the article damaged his reputation. The Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) ruled that the article was “clearly defamatory,” according to Coconuts Manila.
Although the 2012 Rappler story was published four months before the passage of the cybercrime law upon which the DOJ based its case, the DOJ said that basing the case on the law was permissible as the article was “republished” in 2014. According to the report, Rappler says the article was not “republished,” but merely updated to reflect the correction of typographical errors.
Rappler and Ressa face a number of other charges from separate cases related to alleged tax evasion and a national law barring the foreign ownership of a Philippine media outlet. Ressa claims these charges are the government’s retaliation for Rappler’s critical coverage of President Duterte’s administration. She said the latest court ruling on Monday was a blow to free speech in the Philippines.
On Monday during a virtual press conference, Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said that the president supports free speech in the Philippines, despite Ressa’s conviction. “He believes in free thinking and [free] speech. He believes that a government official should not be onion-skinned if he is criticized by the public, especially if this comes from the media,” Roque stated.
The Rappler CEO’s sentencing comes shortly after news last month that President Duterte ordered the shutdown of the Philippines’ largest news broadcaster, ABS-CBN, also critical of his administration, after previously threatening to block the news outlet’s license renewal.