Today, 15 June 2020, the Manila Regional Trial Court handed down a guilty verdict on the cyber libel case against online media organization Rappler’s CEO Maria Ressa and former reporter Reynaldo Santos, Jr. The verdict is a result of a case that is widely regarded to be the ultimate test of the Philippines’ controversial cybercrime law, and is proof of its potential to be be used for impunity, censorship, and to chill press freedom, even now that free speech, expression, and freedom of the press are all the more fundamental in light of a global pandemic. The guilty verdict clearly confirms that all laws – not just the cybercrime law – may be weaponized to silence dissent and prosecute the administration’s loudest critics.
The Foundation for Media Alternatives joins Rappler and the rest of the media community in denouncing this decision, and reiterates its stance that press freedom and free speech are fundamental to civil liberty. Press freedom has repeatedly been affirmed by the Supreme Court in a long line of cases, and has referred to it as a “preferred right that stands on a higher level than substantive freedom or other liabilities.” As it is, the guilty verdict already violates this basic Constitutional principle, and is found wanting on this preference for such a fundamental freedom.
The case is just one among many others filed against Maria Ressa and Rappler within the last two years. It forms part of a well documented pattern of attacks by this administration and its allies against all journalists and media workers, consisting of various threats, harassment, closure orders, and extrajudicial killings. With the imminent passage of the Anti-Terror Bill, the list of speech “crimes” that can be used against critics of the administration grows even further: adding “inciting to terrorism” to readily-abused crimes such as “inciting to sedition” and evidently, online libel.
Yet even without the Anti-Terror Bill, the administration has enjoyed a wide latitude of discretion to impose its own brand of “terror,” no less than through its imperative to bypass due process and kill “suspected” criminals, such as Kian delos Santos or Winston Ragos. It has normalized a culture of military and police impunity, and, through Rappler’s case and many others, asserted the dominance of the rule of men – or one man – over the rule of law.
This dangerous precedent (among others already set by the administration) puts not just media practitioners in danger of being charged with libel, but practically anyone who publishes anything online. The Court itself highlighted this in its decision by acknowledging that mere netizens “can be held accountable for any defamatory posts or comments in the internet.”
As FMA and many media groups have repeatedly emphasized, the cyberlibel provision is an unnecessary and draconian measure that must be deleted from the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, even as libel itself should be decriminalized in the first place. Be that as it may, the Supreme Court itself has outlined a rule of preference for fines instead of imprisonment – as imposed on Ressa and Santos – a rule of preference not at all considered in the latter’s conviction.
Our previous calls highlighting potential for abuse of these laws are not unfounded, as proven by the deplorable outcome of this case.
We therefore call on:
- Civil society to come together and stand with media groups in defending press freedom;
- The Philippine Congress to heed calls for the review and amendment of the cybercrime law and for the decriminalization of libel;
- The government to uphold and protect the constitutional right of every Filipino to free speech; and
- The Filipino people to remain steadfast in upholding our Constitutional rights and to continue to #HoldTheLine.