Maria Ressa, the founder of an award-winning Philippines-based news site and critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, was convicted of cyber libel Monday in a decision that is the latest blow to press freedom in the country.
The Manila court found Ressa, editor and chief executive of online news site Rappler, and former researcher-writer Rey Santos Jr. guilty of libeling a businessman. The case concerned a May 2012 article investigating a former chief justice’s links to multiple businessmen, including Wilfredo Keng. The story cited an intelligence report from an unspecified agency and alleged Keng was tied to illegal activity. Keng denied any wrongdoing.
The law Ressa and Santos were charged under, the Cybercrime Prevention Act, did not exist at the time the story was published. But the courts accepted the lawsuit because the story was considered to have been “republished” in February 2014 after an update was made to correct a typo.
Ressa and Santos were sentenced to between six months and six years in prison, but will not immediately go to jail pending an appeal of the conviction at higher courts all the way up to the Philippines’ Supreme Court, according to Rappler. They were each ordered to pay 200,000 Philippine pesos (about $4,000) in “moral damages” and another 200,000 pesos in “exemplary damages.” Rappler, the company, was found to have no legal liability.
“The verdict against Maria Ressa highlights the ability of the Philippines’ abusive leader to manipulate the laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices whatever the ultimate cost to the country,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The Rappler case will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom.”
Rappler and Ressa have faced numerous government investigations and court battles that press freedom advocates have blasted as judicial harassment and an attempt to silence independent media. Ressa has been an outspoken critic of Philippine President Duterte’s government, and in particular of its deadly war on drugs.
Ressa was among four journalists and one news organization named TIME 2018 Person of the Year for their “pursuit of greater truths” in the face of threats. She was also included on TIME’s 2019 list of the 100 most influential people. “My only crime is to be a journalist, to speak truth to power,” she said in her speech at the TIME 100 gala.