Makati judge inhibits in Maria Ressa’s 2nd cyber libel case

A Makati City judge has inhibited from the 2nd cyber libel case against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa after receiving threatening e-mail.

Makati City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 147 Judge Maria Amifaith S. Fider-Reyes issued a 3-page order on Tuesday, January 5, after a certain Gabriel Alejandro sent threatening e-mail to the court.

The court order was for inhibition and an immediate raffle after records of the case are sent to the executive judge.

On December 4, the e-mail sender asked Judge Fider-Reyes to junk the cyber libel case filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng against Ressa because it was moot and had previously been trashed by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

The e-mail writer's reference to the case being moot was, however, relevant only to the first cyber libel case that had already resulted in a conviction in June 2020, and which is being appealed. At this time, Fider-Reyes' court was handling a cyber libel case over Ressa's tweet of screenshots of a now-taken-down article on Philstar.com about Keng.

The threatening e-mail said: "Good day, ito po ah, nakikiusap ako, sana mapagbigyan nyo ako, wag na tayong humantong sa di maganda. Pakibasura naman po ang inihaing kaso ng mga Keng kay Ressa, kung tutuusin moot na yan at binasura na din ng NBI noon. Ang tagal na din ng article na yan wala ba syang karapatan magpahayag ng saloobin nya? Please ngayon lang. Kasi kung hindi patawad po talaga. Ngayon pa lang ako makakapatay ng tao, hahagilapin ko kayo. Salamat po."

(Good day, I am requesting you, I hope you grant my request so this won't end on a bad note. Please junk the case filed by Keng against Ressa. If you think about it, that is already moot because the NBI already dismissed it earlier. That was an old article, too. Does she not have any right to express her sentiment? Please, just this once. Because if not, I am sorry. This will be the first time I will kill someone, I will hunt you down. Thank you.)

The sender again sent an e-mail on December 24, thanking the court for granting Ressa’s motion for travel during the holidays to visit her parents in the US. The court had granted the motion to travel on December 15.

Fider-Reyes said: “To avoid the impression that the decisions of this judge are influenced or affected by the correspondence received from this e-mail address, the judge finds just reasons to inhibit from this case."

“Whoever is responsible for this e-mail is severely reprimanded for the lack of respect to the judicial processes,” the judge said.

Ressa does not know the alleged sender and supporter. Neither is the purported email address used in communicating with the judge in any of Rappler’s databases or lists of supporters in its network.

In a statement, Ressa said: "I doubt this came from a supporter. Anyone who knows me knows that I would never condone nor tolerate attempts to manipulate the rule of law. We call it out every day despite the impunity we see around us. Having received hate messages and death threats myself, I condemn anyone who would do this and empathize with those who have to deal with it."

Ressa's lawyer Ted Te, member of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), said the judge could have asked the Supreme Court to probe the source of the threat before inhibiting from the trial.

"While voluntary inhibition is entirely up to the judge and I would not want to second guess her reasons for doing so, perhaps the judge could have, before inhibiting, asked the SC to investigate the source of the threat," Te said.

"This goes beyond the case itself because, if the SC does not act, it may end up allowing an end run towards.inhibition through unverifiable threats. 54 lawyers, including prosecutors and judges, have been killed since 2016, and so the SC should take such threats seriously by investigating if these are legitimate or simply ploys to force an inhibition," he added.

Background of the case

The case stemmed from a complaint filed by Keng, whose earlier suit in Manila got Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr convicted of cyber libel in 2020. The conviction is on appeal at the Court of Appeals (CA).

In November of the same year, prosecutors filed a second cyber libel case against Ressa before the Makati Regional Trial Court again involving Keng.

That same month, Fider-Reyes issued an arrest warrant against Ressa and set bail at P24,000. It was Ressa’s 9th arrest warrant for what human rights groups called politically motivated charges meant to intimidate her. (LIST: Cases vs Maria Ressa, Rappler directors, staff since 2018)

While Fider-Reyes granted Ressa's motion to travel to the US, the Court of Appeals (CA) Special 12th Division, in a resolution dated December 18, denied it. The CA said Ressa failed to "prove the necessity and urgency of her intended travel."

Ressa had intended to travel on December 19 and be back in the country by January 11, 2021. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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