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An attack on press freedom or just bad journalism?

The libel case of Rappler editor Maria Ressa rested on facts, not public opinion

An attack on press freedom or just bad journalism?

Maria Ressa gives a statement to reporters in connection with her libel case. (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP)

On June 15, a Philippine court convicted top journalist Maria Ressa and news writer Reynaldo Santos, Jr. of cyber libel.

Ressa is chief executive officer and executive editor of Rappler, an online new site based in the Philippines.

Their convictions sparked an outcry, with national and international media calling the verdict a blatant attack on press freedom by the Rodrigo Duterte administration.

But what are the facts of the case? After all, what was tried in court were facts, not public opinion.

On Feb. 19, 2014 Rappler republished an article called “CJ [Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court] Using SUVs of Controversial Businessman.” The report claimed that a Chinese-Filipino businessman named Wilfredo Keng had been under surveillance by the National Security Council for alleged involvement in illegal activities such as human trafficking and drug smuggling.

The article also alleged that Keng was the mastermind in the 2002 murder of a politician, while Rappler also quoted a 2002 local newspaper report accusing Keng of smuggling cigarettes and granting special investors residence visas for a fee.

Keng proved in court that he did not receive any document related to the above-mentioned crimes. He was also never charged with any crime in any court anywhere in the Philippines.

The prosecution presented six witnesses, including Keng himself. All testified they had read Rappler’s article containing all the accusations against Keng. One witness even told the court that she saw a TV news report making the same allegations.

Keng then filed a libel lawsuit in 2016 against Rappler, Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, Jr. over the article. He also claimed he suffered business losses because of the report because it damaged his reputation.

According to Keng’s lawyer, he negotiated with Rappler to retract the 2014 article. Keng was even open to a compromise or withdrawing the case should Rappler agree to at least publishing another article clarifying the allegations if a retraction was not possible.

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Keng’s lawyer also said that he advised his client to avoid litigation because he believed the matter could be resolved through negotiation.

In August 2016, Keng contacted Rappler through its senior journalist Marites Vitug. He told Vitug he had obtained a certification from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency stating he had no black mark regarding the drug allegations.

Keng also informed Vitug that that he was never investigated or tagged as a murderer, human trafficker, cigarette smuggler or tax evader by the authorities. He again asked Rappler to publish an article to air his side and to tell the public his own version of events.

Rappler assigned journalist Katerina Francisco to write the article giving Keng’s side of the story, which she did. But Rappler never published Francisco’s article despite repeated requests by Keng and his lawyer to do so.

Because of Rappler’s refusal to retract the original accusations or publish Francisco’s article, Keng filed a libel case with the National Bureau of Investigation against the author of the original story, Reynaldo Santos., Jr., and Rappler’s executive editor, Maria Ressa.

A family's humiliation

During the trial, Keng told the court how he, his wife and children had all suffered humiliation because of Rappler’s story and that their lives had been deeply affected.

Ressa and Santos responded by presenting their principal witness, Rappler’s co-founder and lawyer Ma. Rosario Hofileña.

Hofileña told the court about Rappler’s manner of editing. She said Rappler has a “pool of editors.” It has a central desk that has seven to eight editors where stories go for polishing.

She explained that Maria Ressa, as chief executive officer and executive editor, oversees the entire organization.

Ressa “looks at the big picture” but does not personally edit all of Rappler’s articles because her favorite stories involve terrorism and disinformation, Hofileña said.

She also claimed Ressa’s position as executive editor was not the equivalent of an editor-in-chief in newspapers.

Hofileña also claimed Rappler has no editor-in-chief and although Ressa’s title is executive editor, she does not edit articles. Rappler’s news stories are edited by a number of senior journalists whom Ressa consults if she deems necessary.

These were the facts of the case written in court records. These facts were proven by evidence and testimonial witnesses.

The trial court resolved to determine whether Ressa and Santos were guilty of libel by enumerating the elements of the crime, namely the allegation of a discreditable act or condition concerning another; publication of the allegations; the identity of the person defamed; and the existence of malice.

The court found all the libel elements present.

The first element of a discreditable act or condition concerning another was present because Rappler imputed several serious crimes in its article against Keng.

“Rappler’s article leads to no other conclusion than allegations of acts that would discredit Keng’s reputation,” the court’s ruling said.

On the second element, publication of the allegations, Rappler originally published the article on May 29, 2012, and again on Feb. 19, 2014. The court ruled that a single defamatory statement, if published several times, gives rise to as many offenses as there are publications.

The third element of libel — the identity of the person defamed — was easily established as the person referred in the article was the complainant, Wilfredo Keng.

With the fourth element, the prosecution sufficiently established that Keng was a private person with business interests in the Philippines, so was discharged of its burden of proving malice.

The court was convinced that both Ressa and Santos were aware of the probable falsity of the article considering that Keng and his lawyer pointed out to Rappler the inconsistencies in the article.

Despite this, the court said Rappler did not bother to take down or correct the article. Moreover, it did not give an opportunity for Keng to defend himself. In short, Rappler opted to let a libelous article remain on its site.

The final element of libel was proven when the act was committed through a computer system at Rappler’s website.

In dismissing the defense of Ressa and Santos that the time limit on prosecuting the crime had run out, the court said Rappler’s republication constituted a new publication. The February 2014 republication clearly fell within the 12-year period within which Keng could file a case.

Ressa’s supporters, however, said that the Cybercrime Law took effect on Sept. 12, 2012, a few months after Rappler’s article was published. The Cybercrime Law was, they said, retroactively applied, violating the rights of Ressa and Santos to due process.

The Philippine legal system has subscribed to the maxim that there is no crime where there is no law punishing it.

However, a Supreme Court decision ruled that cyber libel was not actually a new crime but a crime that had been under the Revised Penal Code that had long taken effect even before Rappler’s publication of the libelous article.

As a final note in convicting Ressa and Santos, the court said that “journalists are supposed to be reporters of fact, not fiction, and must be able to back up their stories with solid research. The power of the press and the corresponding duty to exercise that power judiciously cannot be understated.”

So, has Maria Ressa been a victim of an attack on press freedom or was it simply bad journalism?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.  

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