A Manila regional court convicted Maria Ressa, co-founder and director of the independent news website Rappler, over an article published in 2012 that was the subject of a complaint by a businessman. But the case was brought under a cyber-crime law that took effect after the article’s publication. Rappler's former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr received the same sentence. Both were allowed to post bail, pending an appeal.
As no criminal legislation can be retroactive, the National Bureau of Investigation logically dismissed the case in February 2018. But President Rodrigo Duterte’s department of justice decided otherwise. It revived the case in February 2019 on the grounds that a supposed principle of “continuous publication” could be applied to websites.
“By passing this extremely harsh sentence at the end of utterly Kafkaesque proceedings, the Philippine justice system has demonstrated a complete lack of independence from the executive,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“This sentence bears the malevolent mark of President Duterte and his desire, by targeting Rappler and the figure of Maria Ressa, to eliminate all criticism whatever the cost. We urge Manila’s judges to restore a semblance of credibility to the Philippine judicial system by overturning this conviction on appeal.”
This conviction of Ressa and Rappler is the latest chapter in the systematic judicial harassment to which they have been subjected by various government agencies for more than two years. Either directly or through Ressa, the website is facing ten other similar complaints, each as baseless as the other, with the aim of intimidating its journalists.
What with denying its reporters access to the presidential palace, threatening to withdraw its licence and accusing it of tax evasion, the authorities have stopped at nothing to harass Rappler, even arbitrarily detaining Ressa overnight in February 2019.
ABS-CBN, the biggest Philippine broadcast network and one of the few other media outlets to dare criticize the government, had its franchise withdrawn last month. Its radio stations and TV channels all stopped broadcasting on 5 May at the behest of the justice department and National Telecommunications Commission.
The country’s irascible and authoritarian president had warned the network’s executives last December: “If you expect that [the franchise] will be renewed, I’m sorry. I will see to it that you’re out.”
After falling seven places since 2017, the Philippines is ranked 136th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.