In a huge blow for press freedom in the Philippines, award-winning investigative journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr, have been found guilty of “cyber libel”.
The guilty verdict has been widely condemned by the international journalism community, human rights groups and politicians calling it “a politically motivated attack” that “kills freedom of speech and of the press”.
Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa delivered the sentence on Monday, acquitting news website Rappler of liability, but convicted Ressa and Santos of cyber libel, for Santos’ May 2012 article, that alleged links between a Filipino businessman and a high court judge.
Speaking after the ruling, Ressa said: “If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything.”
“If we can’t do our jobs, then your rights will be lost. Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen.”
She now faces six years in jail and a fine of 400,000 Philippine pesos (A$11,625). However, both Ressa and Santos will not serve a prison sentence until they have exhausted the appeal process.
It was the first of 11 cases against Ressa, that could see her jailed for the rest of her life if found guilty.
Joining a live forum discussing Ressa’s case as the verdict was delivered, Australian journalist and director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, Peter Greste, shared his reaction to the sentence.
“I feel sick to know that Maria has been convicted. This is a stain on press freedom, it’s a violation of democratic principles, it’s a rollback of democracy in the Philippines and it not only has implications for the region but the rest of the world,” he said.
“This is really the time, particularly for those of us in the rest of the world, to speak to politicians, write to members of parliament and foreign ministries and make it abundantly clear that this is unacceptable.”
Other Australian journalists have voiced their support for Ressa via Twitter, with Walkley-award winning journalist Jess Hill calling for the “world’s media to step up like it did for Peter Greste”.
Ressa’s judgement is the latest strike in an ongoing barrage of lawsuits, online threats and hashtag campaigns like #ArrestMariaRessa and #BringHerToTheSenate in response to her critical reporting of President Rodrigo Duterte and his “war on drugs”.
While Duterte has denied the cases against Ressa are politically motivated, he has openly criticised Rappler since his 2016 election and has called journalists, “spies”. He once said: “You reporters will be allowed to criticise us, but you will go to jail for your crimes.”
Head of Journalism at Macleay College Fiona West expressed her support for Ressa, saying “she is fighting for us all”.
“Maria is an absolute inspiration to all student journalists, and to all journalists for that matter,” she said.
“She is a fearless freedom fighter who recognises this conviction is supposed to frighten others from following the same path – from doing what journalists are supposed to do in holding those in power to account and reporting the truth. After the guilty verdict on Monday her immediate message to other journalists was ‘Don’t be afraid’.
“This test case has ramifications for media in the Philippines but the message it sends to journalists who believe in a free press and democracy extends well beyond its borders.”
Fiona West on Maria Ressa’s cyber libel verdict
Ressa joined a guest lecture for Macleay College journalism students via zoom in April, where she inspired the next-generation of journalists, telling them: “Our mission, the mission of journalism is far more critical today than it ever has been.”
West added: “Maria is one of the busiest journalists I know but she has generously given her time on more than one occasion to speak to Macleay College students to so warmly yet authoritatively call for today’s journalists to have courage, hold the line and imagine what journalism can be, rather than be restricted by the definition or designs of others.
“It is encouraging to see so much support around the world for Maria and her former colleague. We are behind her 100 per cent and are hoping for a successful appeal.”
In addition to the cyber libel charges, Ressa also faces another libel prosecution, two criminal cases alleging illegal foreign ownership in her companies, and investigations into her old tax returns. If convicted on all counts, Ressa could face another 70 years behind bars.
HOW YOU CAN SUPPORT MARIA RESSA AND RAPPLER:
We call on our media colleagues, our community, and other advocates of a free and independent press to be vigilant and vocal now more than ever. To help us during this time, we hope you can share the ways on how people can support Rappler.