[OPINION | Newspoint] From here to cyber’nity

Vergel O. Santos
[OPINION | Newspoint] From here to cyber’nity
The cybercrime law goes against the universal trend toward making libel no longer punishable by imprisonment, a long-overdue reinforcement of press freedom in its lopsided relationship to power


The court verdict pronouncing Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr guilty of libel and sentencing them to jail puts the press in the gravest danger since the martial-law presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, 1972-1986.

The ruling fits a pattern of rulings that have protected allies and punished detractors of President Rodrigo Duterte. A professed Marcos idolater, Duterte is so far along on his own despotic designs he may no longer need to declare martial law; by and large, he has coopted the courts – and, even more obviously, Congress.

By order of the Supreme Court, for instance, Duterte supporters detained on the no-bail-allowed charge of plunder walked free, and Marcos finally got his hero’s burial, after lying in state preserved in wax for a quarter century, waiting for that precise moment of ultimate fakery only Duterte could allow.

On the other hand, for more than three years now, an opposition senator has been in detention, denied bail, for conspiracy in drug trafficking, an improbable charge concocted from the tales of life-term convicts herded for the purpose; and a chief justice too independent-minded for Duterte’s comfort was ousted by her own court.

Maria Ressa’s turn just had to come. The admitted autocrat and certified narcissist that he is, Duterte simply could not be expected to endure a bold advocate of press freedom and dogged truth-seeker like Ressa. Convicted with her – collaterally, you might say – is the researcher/writer who wrote the story in question, Reynaldo Santos Jr. He has since left Rappler.

A businessman named Wilfredo Keng sued them in 2017 for a Rappler report published online in 2012; the report, based on state intelligence, linked him to drug smuggling and human trafficking. It took him, in other words, all of five years to feel aggrieved enough to sue, by which time the one-year period of prescription for libel — the time within which one can sue — had long passed him by.

But “legal acrobatics” were not to be discounted — the phrase is Ressa’s, but it strikes a sense of familiarity from the standard tricks employed by the Duterte regime. In Ressa’s case, the patently ridiculous period of prescription for cyber libel was invoked: it does not allow a cyber habitué to rest easy until 12 years after his posts, stretching the prescription to cyber’nity.

In fact, cyber libel law itself did not apply, having been enacted after the publication of the report Keng questioned. That law, moreover, goes against the universal trend toward making libel no longer punishable by imprisonment, a long-overdue reinforcement of press freedom in its lopsided relationship to power, which Duterte exploits at every chance.

Question of timing

Understandably, Keng was keen to conceal his connection to Duterte and chose to seek refuge in technicalities. He had little use for the larger truths that make for fairness and justice, or even for plain good sense. But his timing alone betrayed his motives.

By a couple of coincidences not unlike lightning striking the same place twice, when Keng finally went to court Rodrigo Duterte had become president, and a president who himself had a score to settle with Rappler, an obvious instance of common cause and mutual benefit. But Keng insists Duterte had nothing to do with his case, neither as patron nor as inspirer. They didn’t even know each other, he says.

But what about his daughter Patricia’s appointment to the Philippine Commission on Women by President Duterte? Another lightning strike of luck?

Keng having strained credulity enough, one of his lawyers, in a recent television interview, decided to take the question for him, but all the same failed to do better. She said the appointment of a daughter of her client by the President – they never knew each other, remember? – was irrelevant. Irrelevance is another stock refuge for lawyers, and that refuge has been taken all too often in this case, which is akin to denying the presence of a whole herd of elephants in court.

But Keng’s luck just doesn’t seem to run out. He found the perfect blind judge – Rainelda Estacio-Montesa. She issued the warrant on Ressa, went on to convict her, and, in spite of a latitude for discretion open to her until the end, chose to go to extremes: not mere fine but both fine and imprisonment. – Rappler.com


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