The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) condemns the conviction of Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa, and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr over retroactive cyber libel charges. The decision by the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 was given on Monday 15 June 2020.
Currently on bail pending appeal, the journalists face between six months and six years in prison, and have been ordered to pay a fine of approximately USD 8,000 (PHP 400,000) for moral and exemplary damages.
The verdict has caused outrage from international organisations and legal experts alike. David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, who submitted an amicus brief to the court in relation to the baseless charges, stated: ‘This is a tragedy for Philippines democracy and media and for one of the great voices for freedom today, Maria Ressa; inspiration to so many of us. This injustice cannot stand.’
IBAHRI Director and member of the High-Level Legal Panel on Media Freedom, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, commented: ‘This decision is a brazen assault on the rule of law. The charges, brought six years after the limitation period had expired, relate to an article written in good faith which fell within recognised exemptions to libel in Philippine law and are, therefore, in dangerous breach of international law. The cases raise grave concerns of judicial impartiality and independence in the Philippines, which should operate free from improper influence of government or other partisan interests. Ms Ressa and Mr Santos have been subjected to a campaign of legal harassment and the IBAHRI stands with them in their appeal.’
The cyber libel charges were brought by businessman Wilfredo Keng in 2017, after Rappler published an article in 2012 investigating alleged ties between Mr Keng and Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona. Mr Keng said he was ‘defamed’ when he was linked to the then-Supreme Court Chief Justice, who was later removed from office through impeachment. Ms Ressa and Mr Santos were charged under the law of cyber libel, which came into force in September 2012, four months after the publication of the article. Prosecutors asserted that a correction to the story in 2014 – to fix a ‘typo’ – meant that the article was republished after the law had come into effect.
The IBAHRI condemns the retroactive application of the law, which is in breach of the basic constitutional safeguard of due process, found in Article 3 (1) of the Philippines Constitution. During the trial, in order to circumvent the prescription period of one year, the judge admitted the argument of ‘continuous publication’ of online articles. The libel complaint was dismissed in 2018, but the National Bureau of Investigation reversed the decision and recommended that the reporters be prosecuted.
Rappler has strongly condemned President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime since taking office in the Philippines in 2016 and has published critical reports of his policies, including the war on drugs which is estimated to have killed 5,000 people in the last three years. In December 2019, the site also reported on President Duterte’s public admission that he sexually assaulted a maid. President Duterte has labelled Rappler a ‘fake news outlet’, banned its staff from covering events and formerly revoked the site’s licence. However, Mr Duterte’s administration has denied involvement in the journalists’ conviction or that the case is politically motivated, citing that the parties are private. In February 2019, Rupert Colville, Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that the treatment of Ms Ressa and Mr Santos was ‘the latest element in a pattern of intimidation of a media outlet that has fiercely guarded its independence and its right to conduct in-depth investigations and to criticise the authorities.’
IBAHRI Co-Chair, and immediate past Secretary-General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg commented: ‘The IBAHRI is greatly concerned by the ongoing threats to freedom of expression in the Philippines, with legal actions brought against journalists who are critical of the government as well as actions to shut down media outlets, including the country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, which was removed from the air last month. The severe sentence imposed on the journalists demonstrates a serious threat to true independence of the judiciary in the Philippines and the extent of executive overreach. The IBAHRI calls for the decision to be overturned immediately. We urge states, media outlets, international organisations and individuals alike to unite and speak out in defence of an independent press.’
The IBAHRI reminds the Philippines’ judiciary that freedom of the press and freedom of speech are protected in Article 3 (4) of the Philippine Constitution, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.
In addition to the cyber libel charges, Ms Ressa faces another libel prosecution, two criminal cases alleging illegal foreign ownership and investigations into tax returns.