Verdict on Rappler, Maria Ressa cyber libel case out April 3

Lian Buan

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Verdict on Rappler, Maria Ressa cyber libel case out April 3

Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa finishes trial in just around 8 months – in what could be the quickest libel trial in recent history

MANILA, Philippines – After only 8 months of trial, the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 will hand down on April 3 its verdict on the high-profile cyber libel case against Rappler, its CEO Maria Ressa, and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr.

“Set this case for the promulgation of judgment on April 3, 2020 at 8:30 in the morning,” Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa said in an order dated January 24, received by Rappler on Friday, February 7.

Montesa finished trial in just around 8 months.

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

Ressa and Santos posted P100,000 worth of bail.

The verdict is appealable up to the Supreme Court.

Legal issues

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.

Keng demanded P50 million in damages.

Rappler maintained it’s a harassment suit against the company, whose officers and staff face at least 11 government investigations and court cases. Keng’s daughter was appointed  by President Rodrigo Duterte last year as member of the Philippine Commission on Women.

Legal questions surrounded Keng’s complaint because ordinary libel in the Revised Penal Code (RPC) says the crime prescribes in one year, or that one can only sue for libel within one year of publication.

Invoking this, an initial probe by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in fact dismissed Keng’s complaint.

But because the cybercrime law is silent on the prescription period of cyber libel, the Department of Justice (DOJ) found an obscure law – Republic Act 3326 – to say that cyber libel prescribes in 12 years, basically extending the crime by 11 more years.

Keng’s legal moves

At the trial, Keng, who boosted his legal team midway trial by getting the former lawyers of alleged drug lord Peter Lim and graft defendant Senator Bong Revilla, presented  Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) officials to say he had no derogatory record in the agency.

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

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, which 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 publishing of the story.

But the Keng camp seemed keen on pinning down Ressa.

Keng’s camp also tried 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.

The cybercrime law provides that all crimes under it have penalties one degree higher than its RPC counterparts. Thus, cyber libel’s punishment increased from prision correccional (6 months to 6 years) to prision mayor (6-12 years).

The Rappler cyber libel case is testing the bounds of the 8-year-old cybercrime Law. Rappler counsel Ted Te has raised the possibility of elevating the case to the Supreme Court to answer constitutional questions. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.