With the Conviction of Maria Ressa, Filipino Journalists Are Extra Watchful


The recent conviction of Rappler’s CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyber-libel by a Manila court, did not surprise the Philippine media, which have remained on the crosshairs of Rodrigo Duterte’s wrath ever since he became the country’s president in 2016.

maria ressa2

On June 15, Ressa and Santos was convicted of cyber-libel, by a law that was applied retroactively, and partly due to a correction of a typographical error. Their prison sentence ranging from six months to six years is bailable but they will have to pay Ph400,000 ($8,000) in moral and exemplary damage to the plaintiff Wilfredo Keng. Ressa and Santos said they will appeal their conviction because of its implications on journalism and free expression online. Parts of the verdict, issued by the judge, Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, harped on journalistic responsibility but for some journalists, academics and civil society groups, the moralizing was unacceptable because the whole decision itself was “uncomprehending, unjust and unconstitutional

The case stemmed from a May 2012 article on Keng’s connections with the former chief justice Renato Corona. Keng, a well-placed businessman, who was alleged by Rappler to have links with drugs smuggling and human trafficking. The article states that Keng lent his car to Corona. By September of that same year, or four months after the article on Keng came out, the Cybercrime Law was enacted. In other words, the cyber-libel law didn’t even exist when the article on Keng was published. While the law cannot be enforced retroactively, the prosecutors pointed out that a correction made on February 2014, to fix a “typo,” is tantamount to republishing the story.  However Rappler said it only corrected a misspelling, ‘evation’ to ‘evasion,’ and thus without substantial modification of the article.  Rappler’s lawyers have questioned the concept of “republication,” that the state prosecutors postulated  because it is a contentious concept that has grave implication for freedom of expression.

Keng filed his complaint on December 2017, which is five years after the article was published, or a year and a half into the Duterte’s presidency. At that time Duterte has already been criticized, locally and internationally, for his drug policy which had led to rampant arrests and extrajudicial killings that came out on  media. As a result, Duterte was unhappy by the negative publicity that he started taking to task several news organizations, including Rappler.

Duterte denied involvement with the high-profile cyber-libel case. Duterte has not sued any journalist for libel because he believes in free speech, said Duterte’s spokesman, lawyer Harry Roque, soon after the verdict came out. Roque urged the public to respect the court decision. However Duterte should not  be seen as disinterested person in the case. Roque admitted that Duterte himself appointed the husband of Estacio-Montesa, Jacob Montesa II, as a judge in April 2020. Duterte also appointed the complainant’s daughter, Patricia Anne Keng, as member of the Philippine Commission on Women for the youth sector in 2019. Roque said their appointments do not affect the integrity of the verdict.

The verdict seems to point beyond legal  matters, and towards the larger issue of the government’s relationship with media. The cybercrime law, tested on Rappler, is the latest in the list of laws that were turned against journalists who resisted their muzzling.  Through an administrative rule, the government’s telecommunications commission ordered the television network ABS-CBN to cease its operations on May 5, 2020, a day after its franchise ended.  A legislation to grant a franchise to ABS-CBN is being heard in the House of Representatives where majority of the lawmakers are Duterte supporters. Many times in the past, Duterte himself had openly criticized the ABS-CBN over non-airing of his election advertisement. Some 11,000 workers of the network were affected by the shutdown.

Repression of media continues despite three months of hard lockdown nationwide. A national emergency law to contain the spreads of COVID-19 was also used to crackdown on those who criticized the government’s handling of the crisis and also control the movement of journalists through an accreditation policy.  The law, which was in effect for three months starting March 24, also penalized the spread of “false information” that led to the arrests of those who posted comments on social media. Both the accreditation policy and fake news provision of the emergency law were questioned by journalists and lawyers for being redundant and becoming the basis for attacks on free speech.

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Rodrigo Duterte

Finally, Duterte signed a new anti-terrorism law on July 3, 2020, after it was passed in Congress on June 2, despite the protests of civil liberty groups, lawyers, academic community and human rights advocates. Its controversial provisions include longer detention of person held on warrantless arrests, stiffer penalties for those considered terrorists or those helping them, and the creation of a body outside of the judiciary to hear cases. For the journalists, the worrisome provision was Section 9 that criminalizes incitement to commit terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations tending to the same end.” The term incitement was not defined in the proposed law. Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalist senior representative in Southeast Asia said: “The legislation as written is a direct threat to journalists, and should be rejected.” In all, the above examples demonstrate that under the Duterte government has enough legal resources to  run after its critics and quell legitimate dissent.

Rappler’s saga of being singled out by Duterte deserves a closer look. An online news site organized by investigative journalists in 2011, Rappler was a bold move in the country’s media landscape dominated by legacy media. Rappler constructed its identity by challenging prevailing business models and cashing in on the rising numbers of young people online using mobile phones. Rappler reporters broke the news fast and experimented with some trendy content that sometimes sacrificed completeness and rigour thus raising eyebrows of their peers. However, when Duterte came to power in 2016, Rappler was well-positioned in the national media pool, given its with skills and resources, to compete for ratings and audience share.

Soon after, Duterte’s war on drugs, the mark of his violent populism, became national news and an international concern. The country’s mainstream media followed the story – through the dark, dank alleys where suspects were rounded up or killed, the unprecedented mass surrenders in slum communities, the grieving families, the hooded hired killers and policemen involved in countless raids resulting in deaths of their so-called targets. Aside from producing moving stories and photographs, some media organizations kept a tally of deaths and arrests that later became the bases for human rights groups to seek the attention of international human rights bodies. The media reportage on the drug campaign has exposed human rights violations and the disregard of human lives. It kept the score and also undermined Duterte’s objective of having an unqualified support for his drug policy.

Duterte’s drug campaign rests on the polarizing narrative , the “us versus them,” also called othering or pinning the blame on the ‘other’ for criminality and other social problems. Media’s ambivalence toward such narrative, along with critical reporting, had eroded support for the so-called drug war.  

The government used a broad range of media, including the state-owned media and the social media, to promote the drug policy and publicly criticized news organizations exposing it. Duterte also relied on a network of supporters and automated accounts or bots to defend him, his policies and his associates. These supporters attacked news organizations and journalists and citizens critical of government policies. No different from Duterte, they have displayed little tolerance for political dissent and a watchdog press.

There are two recent incidents that underscore Duterte’s symbiotic relationship with agents of disinformation. First, on April 9, 2020, the Washington Post reported that Twitter took down “hundreds of accounts,” using specific hashtags that defend the Duterte government’s inadequate action toward the COVID-19 pandemic. In an email to Washington Post, Twitter said the questionable accounts violated its policy on platform manipulation and spamming, including the creation of multiple and duplicate accounts and sending out a huge volume of unsolicited tweets at the height of the lockdown. Second, a rather embarrassing  spamming of an alumni page belonging to a secondary school in India was traced to groups that identify themselves Diehard Duterte Supporters (DDS) in the Philippines. The Facebook page of the alumni of the Daisy Dales Secondary (DDS) School in India were spammed by Filipino DDS who mistook the alumni’s “DDS Confessions” as a conversation thread attacking Duterte. These two incidents demonstrate how systematic, wide-reaching and insidious the government-sponsored disinformation machinery has become.

Protests outside ABS-CBN in Quezon City on 3 June 2020

As a strategy of undermining the big news organizations, Duterte went straight for the jugular, so to speak, by using the franchise issue against ABS-CBN, the business interests of owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the foreign investment scheme of Rappler. Of the three, Rappler received the most number of legal cases. There are seven, down from eleven, cases being tried in court that named Ressa, the CEO and executive editor of Rappler, as among the respondents.  By targeting big news organizations to be taken down, the Duterte administration was giving notice that it could easily do the same for smaller news organizations or any of its political opponents or aggrupations.

The cases filed against Rappler include the question on foreign ownership raised by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that also tried to revoke Rappler’s license to operate on January 2018. However Rappler countered that the use of a foreign investment instrument, called Philippine Depository Receipts, issued to Omidyar and North Base Media, do not violate the constitutional provision against foreign ownership of media. Duterte first made known his stand on Rappler’s cases during his 2017 State of the Nation Address where he said Rappler is owned by Americans. In an interview with Russian Television on January 2020, he said Rappler is funded by the CIA. The other cases filed against Rappler are on violation of securities regulation code, tax evasion and libel. As a result, Ressa was arrested several times and paid considerable amount for bails.

Many media organizations condemned the cyber-libel conviction of Ressa and Santos. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it is part of the chain of media repression and disregarded the protection on free express under the country’s Constitution. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines termed the conviction as a “menacing blow to press freedom” and a “new weapon in the growing legal arsenal” against civil liberties.” Columnist and former dean of journalism school, Luis Teodoro, said the guilty verdict , if upheld by higher courts, would have an effect of “terrorizing the media into silence” because it will constrict their responsibility to monitor and hold the government to account. The Philippines is one of the few countries where libel is still a crime. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) has campaigned for the decriminalization of the country’s libel laws that were termed “outdated, excessive and prone to abuse.”

International media organizations and human rights-watch group also weighed in on the verdict. The Index on Censorship and English Pen, both based in London, condemned the verdict as part of a campaign to silence dissenting voices in the Philippines. They believed that string of cases against Ressa can be seen as an “act of retaliation by the current administration against her reporting.” The Human Rights Watch, through its deputy Asia director Phil Robertson, said the verdict “highlights the ability of the Philippines’ abusive leader to manipulate laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices, whatever the ultimate cost to the country.” Dart Centre Asia Pacific considered the verdict and sentence of Ressa and Santos “a debilitating blow” on press freedom in the Philippines. It called on the government to reform the libel laws in the country.

On many occasions, the repression of Ressa and Rappler cut a figure of dignified resistance in media. The hashtag #HoldTheLine, which was popularized by Ressa and her team, has gone viral. To her credit, Ressa would always say that her personal cases are bound up with the issue of free press and the enjoyment of civil and political rights. Maria Ressa is now a household name but her stance was never acquiescence. Despite the possible effects of the court cases upon her and Rappler, Ressa remained defiant. In a press conference after the verdict, she said:  “Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything.“ Then she added: “Are we going to lose freedom of the press? Will it be death by a thousand cuts, or are we going to hold the line so that we protect the rights that are enshrined in our constitution?”

As if to spite Duterte, the Washington-based National Press Club awarded Ressa the 2020 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award to be conferred later this year. She was the 2018 Time Person of the Year. She also received the 2020 Four Freedoms Award for freedom of speech and expression. The awards manifested support for Ressa while having an effect of discrediting Duterte’s position.

Ressa and Santos cyber-libel conviction was issued when the Philippines was experiencing a partial lockdown, after a three-month hard lockdown, due to the rising cases of COVID-19. The government spin doctors and social media stand-ins must have thought the timing was perfect because of near impossibility of physically mobilizing for protests. However, judging from the amount of statements condemning the verdict, online protesting was vigorous and shows that many journalists and citizens stood by Rappler and would not allow the dark and foreboding scenarios to set in.