Ressa’s case ‘deliberate strategy’ to intimidate journalists
MANILA, Philippines — The guilty decision handed down on Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. for cyberlibel appears to be part of a “strategy” among authoritarian governments that “want journalists to be afraid.”
Foreign observers waiting for the promulgation of Ressa’s case on Monday morning had anticipated the decision of Manila Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa an hour before it was read, as they discussed the “well-documented pattern of attacks on independent voices” in the country.
Ressa and Santos were convicted of cyberlibel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, a key legislation of Benigno Aquino III’s administration that saw its first legal application on journalists in President Duterte’s era.
Resource persons at “The Trial of Maria Ressa Et Al” forum organized by Rappler and the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation on Monday included Ann Marie Lipinski, Pulitzer Prize winning former editor in chief of the Chicago Tribune and curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard; London-based human rights and media law specialist Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC; Peter Greste, a veteran journalist with stints in the BBC, Reuters and Al Jazeera now based in Brisbane, Australia; and Filipino human rights lawyer Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno.
Lipinski pointed out that the Rappler article in question, “CJ using SUVs of ‘controversial’ businessmen,” published on May 29, 2012, was “based on a government intelligence document.”
Wilfredo Keng, one of the “businessmen” identified in that report about impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona’s use of privately owned luxury vehicles, had asked the news site to take down the article, which Rappler updated with a typo correction in 2014. Three years later, he filed his libel complaint.
‘Succession of cases’
Marites Vitug, Rappler’s editor at large and a forum convener, countered that “Keng’s side was in the story, … he knew about the story [and] his side was taken. It’s like five years later, he wakes up and files a case.”Lipinski said the cyberlibel case “is clearly a stretch and an effort to silence a strong journalist of an independent news organization in the Philippines by a government that brooks no criticism.”
Gallagher observed that Ressa “faces a succession of cases that seek to criminalize her reporting.”
Should the convictions meted out in the cases be put together, she said, these would “expose [Ressa] to 100 years in prison” for her libel cases, illegal foreign ownership charges and supposed tax return irregularities.
Geste, who suffered imprisonment in Egypt for his work, said it would be “incredibly naive” to insist “there was no political pressure [on the court and that the judge] was not aware of the politics” involved in Ressa’s case.
“The judge will be acutely aware of the pressure,” Geste said less than an hour before Branch 46 of the Manila Regional Trial Court promulgated the decision.
Gallagher cited the case of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who died in a car bombing in 2017.
She recalled that “Daphne’s case was described as a bolt in the blue, but it was not a surprise following three decades of her being harassed and abused. Ten days before her assassination, she discussed arson attacks, the freezing of her bank accounts and threats, … following years of state-sanctioned harassment.”
“The threats on Maria are far less subtle,” Gallagher said. “This is part of a deliberate strategy where the government wants journalists to be afraid. Threats are part of a pattern of silencing, part of a chilling effect.”
“Journalism now is more under threat than at any point. The  World Press Freedom Index of 180 countries and territories shows the intense climate of fear in many countries, including the largest democracies,” she said.
Lipinski noted the pattern of harassment of journalists across the globe. She said that in the United States, for example, there had been about 400 cases of harassment against American journalists covering protests that stemmed from the death of George Floyd last month in the hands of the Minneapolis police.
Lipinski also pointed to “quickly enacted regulations” now applied to US journalists covering the coronavirus pandemic tantamount to “neutering and handicapping journalists covering [the most] important story of the century.”
Minutes before the forum ended, Ressa’s conviction was announced. Lipinski shook her head.
“I think that this is not the end of it,” Diokno said.
“There is a long legal battle ahead and a strong need to generate a lot of public opinion [for] the government and the courts to look deeply into this case. One of the issues is whether we can still call this country a democracy,” he said.
Diokno added, “After the attacks on the Constitution beginning 2016, this is another attack we should resist, push back and call truth to power.” INQ
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