'I'm scared to go to jail, I'm not as fearless as Maria'

On the eve of what would be a guilty verdict, Reynaldo Santos Jr slept very late.

Not because he was antsy over the promulgation on June 15, but because he was preparing drafts of the emails he needed to send out the next day for work. After all, he had only the morning off.

"Ganun ako ka-OC actually, kaya hindi ko matanggap 'to dahil ganun ako ka-OC sa details," Santos said over a phone interview with Rappler evening of Tuesday, June 16, when he had time to process his conviction over a cyber libel charge.

(I am that obssessive compulsive, that's why I cannot accept this charge because I am that obssessive with details.) 

Santos wrote the 2012 story on the late former chief justice Renato Corona that spurred the most high-profile cyber libel trial since the enactment of the cybercrime law, where he and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa were convicted because of what the court found to be a "reckless" and malicious story.

Santos and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa have been ordered to each pay the complainant Wilfredo Keng P400,000 in total damages, on top of a maximum 6-year jail sentence.

But both of them can enjoy liberty until and unless the conviction is made final by higher courts, including the Supreme Court.

Ressa said she is ready to go to jail. She said she has dealt with the thought of it, drawing strength from other journalists around the world who have gone to jail for their stories. 

"Takot akong makulong, hindi ako kasing tapang ni Maria," Santos admitted. (I'm scared to go to jail, I'm not as fearless as Maria.) 

"Honestly, takot ako (I'm scared), I mean, I'll go back to the fact that I'm not a high-profile journalist as Maria. I might not be able to get the same support that Maria is getting," he said.

Santos said that while he "never felt he was alone," and was always "reassured" by Rappler and its lawyers (Rappler takes care of Santos' legal needs), he said he can't help but compare his "low-profile" stature to the global fame of his former boss, a Time Person of the Year awardee. 

Always the shy one

Santos graduated in 2007 with a journalism degree from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman. He had interned for the investigative news magazine Newsbreak, and had gotten a permanent role in the news group even before he graduated.

Newsbreak was run by the same people – or women – who now run Rappler –  editor-at-large Marites Vitug, managing editor Glenda Gloria, investigative head Chay Hofileña, news editor Miriam Grace Go, and research head Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza.

Gloria describes Santos as "painfully shy."

"He's the typical behind-the-scenes guy just hunched over his desk, immersed in his work, and committed to deliver beyond the call of duty," Gloria said.

Gloria added that she, Mendoza, and the late Aries Rufo "could not have finished" their book The Enemy Within about corruption in the military if it weren't for Santos' research.

Santos initially helped Newsbreak transition to the internet in 2007, but got his first taste of investigative work when he assisted Go in writing about irregularities in the 2007 midterm elections featuring a prominent political dynasty in Metro Manila.

Santos said it was the first time he experienced being given the runaround by a local official – something that would be par for the course for the next 9 years he would work in media.

Santos resigned from Rappler just after President Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016.

Santos has a love-hate relationship with journalism. He has resigned from Newsbreak twice, and returned twice, too – the second time, to join Rappler in 2012.

Rappler – Ressa's brainchild that she launched with Gloria, Hofileña and former TV Patrol executive producer Beth Frondoso – entered the news scene just in time for the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.

The Rappler executives all worked together at one point in ABS-CBN, before they took a leap of faith and created the Philippines' first social media-only news group.

As an internet mainstay, Rappler campaigned against the cybercrime law in 2012 for fear of its threats to freedom of the press, a fear realized past 9 am on June 15, 2020, when, as Ressa said, she and Santos were branded as criminals. (READ: Aquino's contested cyber libel law gets new claws in ruling vs Rappler)

The Keng story

The Keng story started as all stories in Rappler begin – with a huddle.

In that huddle were Santos, Hofileña, Vitug, and Rufo.

They had gotten a tip that Corona was supposedly using vehicles of influential businessmen, raising questions on ethics of the top magistrate, whose position called for a strict sense of neutrality and propriety. Justices would say some of them had even quit their clubs and sports and other hobbies just to avoid being seen with potential litigants.

Because the story involved vehicles, it was almost automatic to give it to Santos, who was known as the Land Transportation Office (LTO) guy, due to a history of getting vehicle registration records for investigative pieces.

Santos did detective work to find the supposed vehicle, a photo of which was attached to what would be the disputed story, titled "CJ using SUVs of 'controversial' businessmen." Santos traced the vehicle as being registered to a businessman named Wilfredo Keng.

Santos found Keng's number and called him – where the businessman admitted to owning the vehicle of the same plate number, but denied that it was the vehicle found at the basement of the Supreme Court.

"Nung tri-ny kong tawagan, ayun sumagot naman. Pagkakatanda ko sa ngayon, short interview lang siya kasi I got straight to the point," said Santos, who said that Keng never called him back even after publication to react.

(When I tried to call him, to my surprise he answered. To my recollection now, it was a short interview because I got straight to the point.) 

Keng's camp would reach out only mid-2016, or 4 years later. "I never thought we will be in this position because back then it was an ordinary investigative report na feeling ko nga back then hindi naman pinansin (that frankly back then I thought nobody really noticed)," Santos said.

To dig up more, Santos found an old Philstar.com article from 2002 that linked Keng to the murder of former Manila councilor Chika Go, which he referred to in his story.

In 2018, after Keng had sued Rappler, he also demanded that Philstar.com take down its 16-year-old story, which they did.

Although the 2002 story had already clearly gone beyond the prescription period for libel – whether it's 1 year or 12 years, Philstar.com said in 2018 it wanted to be prudent because "the scope and bounds of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 are still unexplored."

Rewind to 2012, when Santos put the finishing touches to his story, including a reference to the Philstar.com article, he submitted his draft to Rufo, whom he considers his mentor.

Rufo is an award-winning investigative journalist who wrote the book, Altar of Secrets, an explosive investigation into corruption within the Church – and a book Duterte has endorsed in his public speeches.

Rufo had obtained and verified a government intelligence report on Keng linking the businessman to "human trafficking and drug smuggling."

Santos' story has Rufo in its tagline – a journalism practice where reporters who had contributed to the report are credited at the end of the article. Not all articles have this.

Rufo added the lines on the intelligence report – the pivotal lines that Keng said damaged his reputation. 

During trial, Rufo could no longer defend his work, as he had already died. Rufo passed away in September 2015 of cardiac arrest; he was 45 years old.

Hofileña, the story's editor, said "Aries would have been the ideal person to put on the stand because he had direct access to the sources but because they filed this case so many years later and he has died, that was no longer possible."

What happened in 2016

After publishing the Corona vehicle story in May 2012, Santos did what all journalists do – move on to the next story.

Only a year later, Philippine media would be caught in the whirlwind of one of the biggest stories in the country's history – the pork barrel scam.

Santos obtained a copy of witness Benhur Luy's hard drive, which contained information on the lawmakers who were funneling their pork barrel through non-governmental organizations linked to influential businesswoman Janet Napoles.

Santos was churning out stories on the pork barrel scam almost weekly, and even reactivated his LTO contacts for stories on Napoles vehicles.

So for all intents and purposes – the world had moved on.

One of Santos' last stories for Rappler was his coverage of the plunder acquittal of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in July 2016, a month after Duterte took office.

It would wrap up Santos' years' worth of reportage in the corruption beat, over which he had earned the nickname "Mr SALN" in the Rappler newsroom.

Santos resigned in August 2016 and went on to work with the Bureau of Customs.

One day he got a call from a Rappler staffer who told him a lawyer of Keng had reached out demanding a takedown of his article from 2012.

Hofileña called him after, asking some questions, and he was told they were going to handle it.

At this point, Santos was confident his story was solid.

"My LTO documents were posted, 'yung information na nakuha ko sa SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) to verify the companies, pi-nost din, photos, pi-nost ko sa story, confident ako na well documented 'yung story," he said.

(My LTO documents were posted, the information I got from the SEC to verify the companies I also posted, even the photos I also posted, I was confident that my story was well documented.)

Keng's lawyer Leonard de Vera presented Rappler with an August 15, 2016, certification from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) saying that Keng "has no derogatory record on file" for drug violations.

The certification was issued upon the request of the Keng camp.

"We had to corroborate the information, especially since it ran counter to the intel report of a separate national government agency. We did our due diligence," said Hofileña, who noted that it's very easy for powerful people to get certifications.

Keng's camp had argued that there was malice in the act of Rappler sending one of its former researcher Katerina Francisco to talk with De Vera, and then not publishing a clarification at all.

"(Katerina) wrote a draft, it was edited, but never got published because it did not yet meet editorial standards. Not all stories submitted are published. Reporters will attest to that," said Hofileña. She also said that sending Francisco to interview De Vera was, in itself, an act of good faith.

Hofileña added they also considered timing. After all, what would be the news peg of a story about a clarification made 4 years later, considering that the main subject, Corona, had also already died by then.

"Why only now after 4 years? Why ask the Star to take down its report after 16 years? Why ask for a takedown when we’re in the middle of drug war killings? We cannot be a platform for uncorroborated information nor a platform for PR," said Hofileña.

In revisiting the story, Rappler also found that Keng is the co-incorporator of a real estate company with the two sons of Huang Rulun, the Chinese tycoon whom Duterte had thanked for a P1.4-billion mega drug rehabilitation center donation in Nueva Ecija. 

"Out of the blue, we publish a story about a PDEA clearance in the middle of the drug war?" Hofileña said, explaining the editorial judgment then.

Manila Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa would not agree to these assertions, and said that Rappler was aware "of the probable falsity" of Keng's characterization in the 2012 article, but treated it with "reckless disregard."

"This clearly shows actual malice," said the judge. (READ: What Maria Ressa conviction means for reporting confidential sources)

Lawyers have repeatedly said that the proper focus of the case should be the story supposedly republished in 2014 – defined as a "republication" only on the basis of a typo error correction.

Without any substantial additions made to the 2012 story, the finding of malice is anchored only on the correction. In 2012, the cybercrime law had not been enacted and libel was supposed to have prescribed in one year, meaning, complaints could be lodged only within a year since the publication of a story.

The subpoena

By 2018, Santos was already working with the anti-red tape team of the Department of Finance (DOF).

In January that year, Rappler was ordered shut down by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over its Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs). Rappler was also already in the crosshairs of Duterte, with the President publicly accusing the company of being American-owned.

Santos was just watching all this from afar with a job in the Duterte administration – sympathizing, but already totally disconnected – with Rappler.

Until he got a call one afternoon in February 2018 that would tie him to the mess.

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) sent a subpoena against him and Ressa, over a complaint filed by Keng in October 2017.

"Palabas na ko ng complex ng DOF, nasa may BSP (Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas) na ko, nangangatog na 'ko," said Santos. (I was on my way out of the DOF, near the BSP, when I started shaking.)

Relief came only weeks after, when the NBI's legal department junked Keng's complaint believing that it had already gone beyond libel's one-year prescription period. The legal department would, however, be overturned by the bureau's leaders until it was filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ) a month after, in March 2018.

The DOJ would find a pre-war law to stretch libel's prescription period to 12 years, which Judge Montesa upheld, but which was slammed by legal experts as "patently unconstitutional."

CYBER LIBEL CASE. Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr face the media after they are convicted of cyber libel on June 15, 2020.

Photo by Dante Diosina Jr/Rappler

'The reporter shouldn't be the subject of the story'

The 8-month trial was tough for Santos who is averse to public attention.

"Sa journ school, ang turo, the reporter shouldn't be the story, 'yun 'yung ideals ko kaya 'nung nasa Rappler ako, kahit i-ne-encourage ako para mag-on cam, na sumalang sa newscast, ayaw ko, nahihiya ako. I would rather that I'm just working on my own stuff, away from the public eye at ang makikita lang nila ay ang byline ko," said Santos.

(In journ school, we are taught that the reporter shouldn't be the story, and those were my ideals that's why even when I was with Rappler and I was encouraged to go on camera, to report for the newscast, I didn't want to, I was shy. I would rather that I'm just working on my own stuff, away from the public eye, and the only thing they see of me is my byline.) 

Santos said what has really affected him is that his ethics has been put in question – a journalist's worst nightmare.

"Alam ko sa sarili kong ginawa ko nang tama 'yung trabaho ko, I got all the necessary documents and information, I called Keng, parang nakakasama ng loob," said Santos. (I know that I did my job right, I got all the necessary documents and information, I called Keng, so this is what hurts.) 

Santos also teaches journalism at his alma mater, and though the school has been supportive, it was a challenge to face his students to talk about journalism values when he himself is being accused of cyber libel.

"Parang ang hypocritical lang on my part?" Santos said. (It feels hypocritical on my part.) 

The verdict

Just before 9 am on June 15, Judge Montesa ordered her clerk of court to read her final note first before reading the verdict.

Clerk of Court Unis Bautista began, "The right of every person to freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by our Constitution."

"That moment I knew," said Santos.

"Sanay tayo diyan sa mga court decision na usually ito 'yung sasabihin sa first paragraph pero may 'but' so naisip ko na, na may clincher 'to, na bubuwelo 'to, alam ko na," said Santos. (We're used to those kinds of decisions, where they begin with a paragraph you know would be followed by a "but," so I thought this would have a clincher, I knew.)

Santos was raised by journalism mentors who have survived libel cases.

In 2007, then-senatorial candidate Luis "Chavit" Singson filed a P100-million libel case which yielded a warrant of arrest for Mendoza, Vitug, Rufo, then-business editor Lala Rimando, and Newsbreak publisher Maan Hontiveros.

It was over a series of articles that described Singson as a "second gentleman," and illustrated his close connection to Arroyo.

In July 2018, a Vigan City court dismissed the case for violating the journalists' right to a speedy trial.

"I find comfort that they are telling me that it's okay, napagdaanan na nila 'yan, pero the fact na iba na ang political environment ngayon, mas quote, unquote, mean na ang mga tao, because of social media, may takot pa rin," Santos said.

(I find comfort that they are telling me that it's okay, that they've gone through it, but the fact is the political environment is different now, people are also meaner because of social media, so I still feel the fear.) 

Fading into the background

Santos now works in public relations in the private sector, where sometimes he is reminded of his days in news, but is mostly excited to tread in new worlds and immerse in new experiences.

It's what makes the case hard to process for him – that he had long left the world of media, and yet on a humid morning on June 15, found himself donning a face mask because of the coronavirus, swarmed by cameras and microphones, and seeing on the opposite side faces of people he had worked with before.

They all wanted him to speak, answer their questions, pushing him to the center of a spotlight he never once craved.

"I'm not Maria, I'm not a lawyer, yet I'm dragged into this situation, it's sad, it's very sad, for someone who's doing his job, to be here. I think it could be not just me, but other people who are doing their jobs properly could be in the same situation that I am in," Santos told reporters after their guilty verdict was read.

When the press conference was over, Santos got into a car, turned on his phone, and sent the work emails he prepared the night before. He once again faded into the background. But what has been his comfort zone has somewhat become a place of fear.

"Mas madali kasing i-pin down someone who is low-profile like me, compared to someone who is high-profile like Maria." (It's easier to pin down someone who is low-profile like me, compared to someone who is high-profile like Maria.)

"That's why I'm scared." – 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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