(UPDATED) Opposition legislators condemned the cyber libel conviction of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr, warning that their conviction "will not be the last" if Filipinos remain silent about the creeping tyranny in the country.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said on Monday, June 15, that it would have been more surprising if Ressa and Santos were acquitted, given the relentless attacks of President Rodrigo Duterte's government on dissenters and the media critical of its abusive policies.
"The silencing of critics and the attacks on the media have been going on for 3 years now. And unless we stand up, speak out, and vigorously oppose the tyranny in our midst, their conviction will not be the last," the president of the once-ruling Liberal Party said in a statement.
Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto, who is a member of the majority in the Senate but an LP member as well, hoped that Ressa's conviction would be overturned.
"I wish Maria Ressa victory on her appeal and hope that her conviction will be overturned. That is also the clarity the nation wants to see in the application and interpretation of a law with ambiguities and frightening consequences on our freedom," he said.
"Democracy thrives when truth can be spoken to power freely and without fear. But it is also the duty of the press to redress the grievances of people without power who have been hurt by inaccurate reporting. A nation can withstand an occasional reckless press, but it cannot survive with a repressed one," Recto added.
Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa found Ressa and Santos guilty of cyber libel over the latter's May 2012 article on the late former chief justice Renato Corona's links to businessmen, including the man who filed the case, Wilfredo Keng. (READ: Rappler statement on cyber libel conviction: Failure of justice, failure of democracy)
Ressa and Santos were allowed to post bail, but were each ordered to pay Keng P200,000 in moral damages and another P200,000 in exemplary damages. Rappler as a company, however, was not found liable for cyber libel.
The guilty verdict was handed down just 3 days after the country marked Independence Day and about two weeks after Congress passed the anti-terrorism bill, which Filipinos fear would be used by the government to clamp down on critics.
For Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman, an opposition lawmaker, Ressa and Santos' cyber libel conviction is a "tragic commentary on the judiciary's succumbing to the repressive campaign" of Malacañang.
"Now the cruel price of free speech and press freedom is impending incarceration. What would be imprisoned with Ressa are critical reportage and legitimate dissent even as it would hold hostage press freedom," Lagman said.
House Deputy Minority Leader Carlos Zarate likewise condemned the conviction as "another nail on the press freedom coffin," and added that it could be dangerous even for ordinary Filipinos who use social media platforms.
"Taken into the context of the ABS-CBN shutdown and the railroading of the [anti-terrorism bill], this can be taken as the tightening of our civil liberties, particularly that of press freedom and the freedom of expression. This is an ominous sign of where the Duterte administration is going to bring our country," Zarate said.
"The people must fight back," he added.
Senator Risa Hontiveros put it succinctly: "We are complicit if we stay silent."
"Today's conviction sends a chilling message to all: kung kritiko ka, puwede kang ipasara at puwede kang patahimikin. I urge everyone to speak out. Dumarami tayo.... Takot sila, kaya nila tayo pinapatahimik," Hontiveros said.
(Today's conviction sends a chilling message to all: if you're a critic, you can be closed down and you can be silenced. I urge everyone to speak out. We're growing in number. They're afraid, that's why they want to silence us.)
Ressa is facing 7 other criminal charges in various courts, all related to Rappler's Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs), over which the news company was ordered shut in 2018. But the Court of Appeals already ruled the PDR problem has been cured.
At least 154 incidents of attacks and threats against Philippine media have been recorded since Duterte assumed office in June 2016.