Philippines journalist Maria Ressa convicted of ‘cyber libel’

High-profile Philippines journalist Maria Ressa, chief executive of the Rappler news website, has been found guilty of “cyber libel” and sentenced to up to six years in prison.

The conviction was the first to be delivered against Ms Ressa, whose company and colleagues face another seven criminal cases under an array of charges brought by Rodrigo Duterte’s administration since 2017.

Human rights campaigners described the verdict as a blow for press freedom in the country.

Ms Ressa, a former Manila and Jakarta bureau chief for CNN, was found guilty along with Rey Santos, a former Rappler researcher and writer. But the court found no liability for Rappler’s corporate entity, which was also charged in the case.

The court allowed the two to post bail, and sentenced them to between six months and one day and six years in jail. Last week, Ms Ressa said that Rappler planned to challenge the verdict “all the way to the supreme court”. 

Founded in 2012, Rappler has won a keen audience among liberal Filipinos critical of Mr Duterte. But it has angered administration officials with its reporting on the president and his family, the administration’s interactions with big business and China, and its anti-drug campaign that has killed thousands of people since the president took power in 2016. 

The charges in the cyber-libel case were brought last year by the Philippine Department of Justice in response to a 2017 complaint by Wilfredo Keng, a businessman, under the country’s eight-year old cyber crime law. 

The article that prompted Mr Keng’s complaint was published in May 2012, four months before the law was passed. But prosecutors were able to pursue the case because Rappler republished the story in February 2014 to correct a one-letter typo in the story. 

The story in question, which remains accessible on Rappler’s website, linked an impeached then supreme court chief justice to a vehicle registered in the name of Mr Keng, one of the Philippines’ richest businessmen. Mr Keng has denied any wrongdoing. 

Leni Robredo, the Philippine vice-president, who is affiliated with the opposition Liberal party, spoke out against ruling. “A threat to the freedom of a single Filipino is a threat to all of our freedoms,” Ms Robredo wrote on Twitter. “If the law and our institutions can be used against the free press, we should be wary of what this means to ordinary citizens. ” 

The Committee to Project Journalists described Ms Ressa’s conviction and sentencing as “an outrageous crime against press freedom”. 

Ms Ressa, other Rappler executives, and the website itself also face charges of tax evasion and violating rules barring foreign ownership of media companies. The company and Ms Ressa have denied any wrongdoing, and their supporters describe the charges as a legal vendetta meant to silence them.

By her own count, Ms Ressa could face more than 100 years in prison if found guilty of all of the charges brought against her. 

The guilty verdict comes against the backdrop of deteriorating human rights standards and media freedom in the Philippines, where journalists face widespread legal intimidation and violence.

The country last month ordered the closure of ABS-CBN, the country’s leading broadcaster and largest media organisation.

Last week, an “anti-terror bill” was passed, which critics said would give the president and the administration sweeping powers to crack down on political dissent.

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