Philippines: Quash conviction of Rappler journalists Maria Ressa and Rey Santos

Responding to news that a Manila court convicted Rappler editor-in-chief Maria Ressa and former journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr of “cyber libel” over an article written in 2012, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, Nicholas Bequelin, said:

Ressa and her team have become global icons for press freedom after President Duterte himself has repeatedly singled them out for attack.
Nicholas Bequelin, Asia-Pacific regional director

“This verdict is a sham and should be quashed. Ressa, Santos and the Rappler team are being singled out for their critical reporting of the Duterte administration, including ongoing human rights violations in the Philippines. The accusations against them are political, the prosecution was politically-motivated, and the sentence is nothing but political.

“With this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall. It is time for the UN to urgently open an international investigation into the country’s human rights crisis, in line with the recent conclusions of the UN Human Rights office itself.

“Ressa and her team have become global icons for press freedom after President Duterte himself has repeatedly singled them out for attack, intimidation and harassment. They face a long battle ahead, with several more politically motivated charges awaiting trial.

It is time for the UN to urgently open an international investigation into the country’s human rights crisis, in line with the recent conclusions of the UN Human Rights office itself.
Nicholas Bequelin

“This guilty verdict follows the shutdown of ABS-CBN, which remains off the air – also after coming under the President’s attacks. The international community cannot remain silent in the face of this brazen vendetta against the press.”

Background

On 15 June 2020, a Manila court convicted both Ressa and Santos of cyber libel, becoming the first journalists in the Philippines convicted of the offence. The verdict carries a penalty of imprisonment ranging from six months and one day to six years. It orders Ressa and Santos to pay the complainant, businessman William Keng, a total of PhP 400,000 (USD 7,950) in damages. The court allowed the two to post bail.

The case against the two stems from an investigative article by Santos, published on 29 May 2012. The article alleged that former Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona used a vehicle owned by Keng, who had suspected links to illegal drugs and human trafficking.

Seven years later, on 13 February 2019, Ressa was arrested by the National Bureau of Investigation and detained overnight before being granted provisional release on bail, after the Department of Justice accused Ressa and Santos of “cyber libel” for the article. The article was published more than three months before the Cyber Libel Act was passed into law. The law should never have been applied retroactively, as the alleged offence was not a crime at the time it took place.

Ressa, Santos and Rappler’s directors collectively face several other lawsuits and investigations, including alleged tax violations and violations of the prohibition against foreign control over mass media. Rappler has been a consistent critic of President Duterte and his administration, publishing detailed investigations into some of the thousands of extrajudicial executions of poor and marginalized people committed by police and other unknown armed persons during ‘war on drugs’ operations.

On 5 May 2020, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued a cease-and-desist against broadcast media company ABS-CBN, ordering the company to stop operating its TV and radio broadcasting stations nationwide “due to the expiration of its congressional franchise”. ABS-CBN has produced numerous investigative reports highlighting human rights violations and attracted the ire of President Duterte for allegedly failing to run his paid political advertisements, during the 2016 elections that he won.

On June 4, a UN Human Rights Office report drew attention to “serious human rights violations” in the country. The report, among other things, “detailed ongoing threats to freedom of expression, with legal charges and prosecutions being brought against journalists and senior politicians critical of the Government, as well as actions to shut down media outlets.”