On June 15, 2020, Maria Ressa, world-renowned journalist and CEO of Rappler, a leading independent news source in the Philippines, along with her colleague Reynaldo Santos, Jr., a former researcher at Rappler, were convicted of cyber libel by the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC). Both Ressa and Santos face up to six years of incarceration due to an alleged violation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. Ressa’s case sparked condemnations against Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration by the international journalism community who argue that the judgment will fundamentally threaten the future of press freedom in the Philippines.
The case is extra controversial because the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 was passed four months after the original Rappler article was published. Despite the original publication occurring before the Act was passed, the correction of a typo within the original article entrapped Rappler in an alleged libel crime under the new cybercrime law. In the article, originally published in May 2012, Santos claimed that businessman Wilfredo Keng was involved in illegal drug dealing, human trafficking, and had corrupt ties with the late, impeached Supreme Court Judge Renato Corona. In 2016, four years after the article’s original publication, Keng’s lawyer demanded that Rappler clear content relating to Keng’s participation in illegal activities, arguing that Keng had no official record of involvement in those crimes. Keng’s legal team filed a complaint with the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in 2017. In 2014, a researcher at Rappler found and corrected a typo in the article, an insubstantial change which was later controversially ruled as an article “re-publication”. In her ruling, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa stated that since the article had been “re-published” when the typo was corrected, the article’s edit date classified the article as subject to the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. This ruling did not accurately constitute re-publication because, despite the correction of a word, the overall content and facts of the article were not substantially changed. Applying the notion of “re-publication” was rather reluctant, so it is more of an excuse the Duterte government used to target Rappler.
The ruling is controversial for multiple reasons. First, despite Ressa not being personally involved in the writing of the controversial article, she was still the target of this case through association. President Duterte’s government has been harsh on journalists and news outlets that expose negative news about the Administration and Rappler has been a historically outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent anti-drug campaign, something which has made Ressa and Rappler longtime targets of the Duterte Administration. Ressa also faces another seven charges filed against her by the Duterte government, alleging tax evasion and reception of funds from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Ressa denied all of these charges and say they are just tactics by the Duterte government to cripple media criticism of the government officials. Ressa’s cyber libel conviction highlights the danger to journalistic freedom to write and report the truth: a fundamental right in a functioning democratic country now being threatened by autocratic leadership.
Secondly, the prescription period, the maximum time period set by statute that an entity can bring up legal action, is highly problematic. The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, does not explicitly mention a prescription period. Ordinary libel crime prescription periods under the Revised Penal Code (RPC) are one year, which means that Keng’s complaint, filed in 2017, was five years beyond the standard prescription period. However, the Department of Justice (DOJ) selectively referred to another act for Ressa’s case, the Republic Act No. 3326, which states that special acts, like cybercrime, shall prescribe 12 years if the punishment is six or more years of imprisonment. The implication of this selective interpretation is far-reaching. It indicates that all news and articles published within an unreasonably long 12-year prescription period are open to libel complaints, making press organizations more vulnerable to cybercrime accusations.
A group of respected international humanitarian lawyers led by Amal Clooney has joined together to provide Ressa legal defense. While there have always been conflicts between reputation and freedom of expression in defamation law, defamation suits too broadly applied can have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech because individuals and the press may refrain from reporting out of fear of reprisal. The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 prioritizes the reputation of the government over press freedoms because it punishes offenders beyond a reasonable degree. The precedent set by Ressa’s case further diminishes press freedom in the Philippines, but hopefully brings international attention and a much-needed spotlight to directly address the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and an independent, free press.
Even though Duterte’s government has attempted to silence Ressa with death threats, she has continued to be a tenacious fighter for press freedom. As Ressa said in a recent interview: “I’ve committed no crime but to speak truth to power.”