Verdict on Rappler, Maria Ressa cyber libel case out June 15

Initially scheduled on April 3 but postponed because of the coronavirus lockdown, the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 has scheduled for June 15 the handing down of its verdict on Rappler, its CEO Maria Ressa, and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr in the high profile cyber libel case.

Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa finished the trial in only 8 months in what could be the quickest libel trial in recent history.

"Please be informed that the case is set for promulgation of judgment on June 15, 2020, at 8:30 am," RTC Branch 46 said in a notice received by Rappler's lawyers on Monday, June 1, the very first day of Metro Manila falling under general community quarantine.

Courts nationwide are now fully operational because of the relaxation of quarantine measures in the whole country. Virtual hearings have also been allowed.

For this case, the verdict will still be handed down in court, but a limited number of people can attend.

"Please be reminded that only counsels and parties to the case will be allowed inside the courtroom. This is in line with the safety protocols of the Court, in view of the Covid situation," Branch 46 said in its notice.

Ressa was arrested on February 13, 2019, but trial started only on July 23 that same year. (READ: What you need to know about Rappler's cyber libel case)

Ressa and Santos each posted P100,000 bail. The verdict is appealable to the Supreme Court.

Constitutional issues

The cyber libel case has constitutional implications because to be able to charge Ressa and Santos, the Department of Justice (DOJ) found an obscure law – Republic Act 3326 – to extend libel's prescription period from one year to 12 years.

Businessman Wilfredo Keng filed the case in 2017 against Rappler, Ressa, and Santos, or 5 years after the article in question was published in May 2012 linking the complainant to the late former chief justice Renato Corona. This would have ordinarily been regarded as a complaint filed after the one-year prescription period of libel had laped – as provided for in the Revised Penal Code.

The 8-year-old and hotly contested cybercrime law is silent on the prescription period for cyber libel.

Embattled Rappler

Rappler has maintained it's a harassment suit against the company, whose officers and staff face at least 11 government investigations and court cases

Keng is disputing parts of the article that linked him to "human trafficking and drug smuggling."

Keng presented Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) officials to say he had no derogatory record in the agency.

Rappler presented NBI legal officials who had recommended the dismissal of Keng's complaint over the lapsed prescription period.

The legal division of the NBI was overruled by the former chief of the NBI Cybercrime Division, who forwarded the complaint to the DOJ.

Rappler also presented its journalists on the witness stand. One of them, investigative head Chay Hofileña, explained to the court how Ressa had no involvement in the editing and publication of the story.

But the Keng camp appeared keen on pinning down Ressa.

Keng's camp also attempted to get the identity of Santos' source for the intelligence report where he based his article on, but Judge Montesa agreed that the Sotto law allows the journalist to withhold the identity of his source. – 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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