MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – The Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 reset the arraignment of Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa on Tuesday, April 16, over one count of cyber libel.
The arraignment of Ressa's co-accused and the author of the article in question, former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr, was also reset.
Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa deferred arraignment to allow both journalists to file a motion for reconsideration on the denial of their earlier motion to quash.
The new schedule for their arraignment is May 17.
The journalists, aided by lawyer Ted Te of the Free Legal Assistance Group, argued that libel as defined in the Revised Penal Code (RPC) prescribes in one year, meaning you can no longer sue for libel one year after the publication of the article.
Santos' story on the supposed links of former chief justice Renato Corona to wealthy businessmen was published in May 2012, and supposedly republished in February 2014 due to typographical corrections. Businessman Wilfredo Keng filed the complaint only in October 2017.
Montesa upheld the theory of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that because the Cybercrime Law is a special law, cyber libel has a prescriptive period of 12 years based on Republic Act No. 3326.
In a statement on Tuesday, Keng said Judge Montesa’s decision to deny the motion to quash was “fearless.”
“I am deeply grateful that the rule of law continues to exist in the Philippines, protecting the abused and oppressed, and that the entire judicial system in the country remains intact,” Keng said.
If this theory is to be eventually upheld, anyone who publishes anything online is vulnerable to a libel suit even after 12 years since publication.
The Supreme Court clarified parts of the law in 2014 but the decision it handed down did not explicitly provide a new prescription period for cyber libel, although it said that cyber libel is "not a new crime" from ordinary libel.
Te earlier said that Ressa and Santos' case might force a revisit of cyber libel by the Supreme Court. But he said on Tuesday they will first exhaust all their legal remedies before the trial court, which includes filing a motion for reconsideration.
“The procedure really is to ask for a reconsideration, we do not want to unduly give the courts an opportunity that we did not observe the hierarchy, we want to make sure that if we do get to the Supreme Court, everything has been followed, no technicalities, no other grounds other than the issues that should be ventilated before the Supreme Court,” he added.
Lawyers who challenged cyber libel before the Supreme Court have warned against a dangerous precedent being set by this case.
“What’s important to keep in mind is that this case is just not about Rappler, it’s about anyone who posts on the web, anyone who posts on Facebook, any journalist who writes anything online, that’s why it’s incredibly important to look at it. What we hope and pray for is judicial independence,” Ressa told reporters after the hearing.
This is Ressa's 8th active court case, and part of the 11 overall cases that Rappler, Ressa, its directors, and staff are facing.
“Look at the actions, 11 cases filed against Rappler by the Philippine government in 14 months, that is an incredible track record, and each one of these cases we call ridiculous and we will fight them in court. I’m just a journalist trying to do my job, and the government should let us do that,” Ressa added.