MANILA, Philippines – For journalists all over the country, the guilty verdict on Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr carried a clear message: “To be critical is to be snuffed out.”
Backing Rappler, embattled media network ABS-CBN joined calls to uphold press freedom and freedom of speech in the country following the announcement of the guilty verdict.
Following the guilty verdict in the cyber libel case against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former writer-researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr., ABS-CBN News stands with fellow journalists in upholding press freedom.https://t.co/NgRNMbIWiW pic.twitter.com/J631MekE5r— ABS-CBN News (@ABSCBNNews) June 15, 2020
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, on the other hand, said the verdict only shows there is now a “new weapon in a growing legal arsenal against constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in an Asian outpost of democracy.” (READ: What Rappler conviction means for reporting confidential sources)
The Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines Inc. chimed in: “Convicting Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. for an ‘updated article,’ that was already beyond the prescriptive period for libel smacks of a targeted attack on media that has been publishing not only glossy stories on the administration.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and AlterMidya also slammed the guilty verdict, saying the cyber libel provision in the law can now be used as a “potent tool for political vendetta against journalists and citizens whose only “‘crime’ is to be perceived as critical of government.”
“It would render journalists and citizens defenseless against government and officials who will use anything and everything to evade accountability and to silence those who dare ask them questions,” added Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity.
The cyber libel case stemmed from Santos’ May 2012 article on the late former chief justice Renato Corona’s links to businessmen, including Wilfredo Keng, who disputed parts of the article that quoted an intelligence report linking him to drugs and human trafficking.
Although the article was published in 2012, Keng only filed a complaint in 2017, beyond the one-year prescription period for libel under the Revised Penal Code.
The article in question was also published 4 months before the enactment of the cybercrime law in September 2012, sparking questions about retroactivity.
The Department of Justice had used the theory of republication to justify the article’s coverage in the cybercrime law after Rappler corrected a typographical error on February 19, 2014, belatedly spotting the misspelled “evation” and changing it to “evasion.”
The Daily Guardian warned how Rappler’s cyber libel case has become a “cautionary tale of the travails and challenges that Philippine journalism faces.”
“It is apparent that the law and government institutions are being weaponized to at the very least discourage the journalists from reporting on matters that have inimical effects on our rights, liberties, and even lives,” it said.
In a series of tweets, ABS-CBN journalist Ces Oreña-Drilon pointed out how the Rappler cyber libel verdict will have serious implications for Filipino journalists, remarking how Keng’s complaint “moved with unusual speed in a country where the wheels of justice turn so slowly.”
His complaint moved with unusual speed in a country where the wheels of justice turn so slowly. https://t.co/zel0Q1nSRW— Ces Oreña-Drilon (@cesdrilon) June 15, 2020
The verdict will affect all of us. It will have serious implications for Filipino journalists. #Istandwithmariaressa pic.twitter.com/PAlwDk10eh— Ces Oreña-Drilon (@cesdrilon) June 15, 2020
Call for unity
Other journalists including Danilo Arao and Jeff Canoy have also spoken up, echoing concerns about the verdict’s “chilling effect” not just on journalists but on all people.
PERSONAL STATEMENT: The guilty verdict on Ressa and Santos sends a chilling effect not just on journalists but on all people. After ABS-CBN and Rappler, you (yes, YOU!) could be next. Cyberlibel is as real as the theory of continuing publication. They are weaponized to repress.— Danilo Arao (@dannyarao) June 15, 2020
CYBERLIBEL GUILTY VERDICT: The death warrant on press freedom and democracy has been signed. To insist that Rappler's ordeal is an isolated case is to ignore the systematic attacks on media.— Danilo Arao (@dannyarao) June 15, 2020
ABS-CBN’s Jeff Canoy especially highlighted how journalists must strengthen ranks and collaborate more to ensure the protection of press freedom in light of recent attacks and threats against media.
If you’re a journalist today in the Philippines, there’s no fence-sitting on the issue of press freedom with everything that’s happening. An attack on one is an attack on all. We need to strengthen our ranks. Collaborate more. Protect each other.— Jeff Canoy (@jeffcanoy) June 15, 2020
Blow to press freedom
The guilty verdict comes amid several attacks against the media.
Just recently, ABS-CBN was forced to go off-air after the National Telecommunications Commission ordered it to stop television and radio operations. Lawmakers had dragged their heels in tackling the franchise renewal of the embattled network, eventually leading to its shutdown.
Rappler’s cyber libel case is only one of many court cases, complaints, and investigations it has received since January 2018, barely 6 months after President Rodrigo Duterte falsely claimed in his July 2017 State of the Nation Address that Rappler is “fully owned by Americans.”
“The verdict basically kills freedom of speech and of the press. But we will not be cowed. We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms,” added the NUJP.
The Cebu Citizens-Press Council urged Congress to amend the cybercrime law to fix the prescriptive period and “not leave it to judges who may err to be misguided in interpreting the law.”
“CCPC worries specifically on the impact of the decision on future prosecutions for cyber-libel. It worries for journalists who’d be facing for 12 years the threat of litigation for each potentially libelous publication…The prolonged threat will cause greater harm to journalists who need to do their job freely without the constant threat of being sued, even over material published more than a decade before,” they said. – Rappler.com
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