Faced with 2nd cyber libel suit, Maria Ressa says she will never delete tweet

Faced with a second cyber libel suit by businessman Wilfredo Keng over a tweet, Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa said she will never give in to demand of deleting her tweet and apologizing publicly to the complainant.

"Imagine if I said, 'Well, this a really, really small thing and maybe I'll just step back just a little bit,' and then I step back a thousand times and a million times, then I've just lost all my right," Ressa said during a press briefing held Thursday, July 30, after she submitted her counter-affidavit to the Makati Office of the City Prosecutor.

The second complaint filed by Keng was over a tweet that Ressa made in February 2019 showing screenshots of a deleted 2002 Philippine Star story that implicated the businessman to the murder of former Manila councilor Chika Go.

The 2002 Philippine Star story was referenced in the 2012 Rappler story that led to the cyber libel conviction of Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. Manila Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa has denied Ressa and Santos' motion for reconsideration, which will now bring the journalists to the Court of Appeals.

On February 16, 2019, after Ressa was arrested for the Manila case, Philstar.com took down the article from its website, saying it wanted to be prudent as "the camp of Mr Wilfredo Keng raised the possibility of legal action." 

Ressa tweeted the screenshots of the taken down Philippine Star story, with the caption, "Here's the 2002 article on the private businessman who filed the cyber libel case, which was thrown out by the NBI and then revived by the DOJ. #HoldTheLine."

Before filing the complaint in Makati on February 13, 2020, Keng's camp had sent a letter on November 22, 2019, to Ressa demanding that she delete the tweet and make a public apology "otherwise we shall be constrained to file a complaint for cyber libel against you."

"[I considered deleting the tweet for] a second. It would be foolish not to think about it given the number of cases Rappler is facing and the number of cases I am personally facing. But at the same time, it's the reason why we continue fighting back," said Ressa.

Sharing not a crime

Ressa's lawyer, former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te, said that even if the Philippine Star article would be proven to be libelous, Ressa could not be held accountable for the story because she only shared it. 

Te said the only content that should be scrutinized under libel laws is Ressa's caption in the tweet "which was certainly not defamatory," according to the lawyer.

Te said, as argued also in Ressa's counter-affidavit, that in the case Disini vs Secretary of Justice, the Supreme Court had already declared as unconstitutional the part of the Cybercrime Law which previously punished aiding and abetting of a cyber crime, which in this context, means sharing a libelous content.

"Many other people shared the article, many [others] shared Maria's post. If this complaint is resolved adversely, meaning she gets another cyber libel charge as a result of this, then it would really be dangerous for anyone now on social media who shares anything, basically that would be a reversal of Disini," Te said.

Ressa pointed out the subpoenas that had been sent by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to dozens of individuals just because they posted something critical of the government and government officials.

"It's incumbent of me as a Filipino citizen to hold the line. People should not get away with intimidating others, or pounding others to silence. It's just not right," said Ressa. 

Republication?

In the conviction of Ressa and Santos, Judge Montesa considered a typographical correction made two years later a republication. Without republication, the 2012 story would not have been prosecuted under the Cybercrime Law because it was published before the law was enacted.

Lawyer Romel Bagares, one of the Supreme Court petitioners against the 2012 Cybercrime Law, warned that Montesa's interpretation of republication could mean that years-old articles in newspapers that will be digitized would be considered republications and open to suits. 

Te said that will not apply to Ressa's second cyber libel case because republication requires that the same entity republishes it.

"In this case, it would have to be the Philippine Star. In this case, it was a tweet. It was not written by Rappler. It was a tweet by Maria on her page, so I think it would be a stretch to argue that it would be republication as we understand republication as a legal concept," said Te.

Te said that if sharing the screenshots is considered republication, then that would also be going against the Supreme Court ruling that sharing  a libelous content is not a crime.

The Rappler and Ressa cases has brought up persisting questions on the problematic parts of Philippine libel laws, as defined in both the Revised Penal Code and the Cybercrime Law, and its negative implications on free speech.

Te said they are prepared to tackle those issues up again at the Supreme Court.

"For Maria and Rey Santos' peace of mind, I hope we don't have to go to the Supreme Court, because that would mean we would have lost the appeal at the Court of Appeals," said Te.

"This would be Disini again, but this time, more focused on cyber libel, and this time, no longer a facial challenge but as applied challenge where someone had been convicted. I wouldn't want to, but we're prepared to go up as necessary," Te said. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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