'Another blow to press freedom’: Student groups condemn cyber libel conviction
MANILA, Philippines – Several groups and campus publications decried the guilty verdict on Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos over cyber libel charges in a decision handed down Monday, June 15.
The cyber libel charges were filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng over a 2012 story written by Santos which raised questions about his links to former chief justice Renato Corona. (TIMELINE: Rappler's cyber libel case)
In a statement, the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) condemned the verdict, citing that this cyber libel conviction adds to the number of cases of harassment, censorship, and threats among journalists under President Duterte’s administration.
Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa ruled that only Ressa and Santos are guilty of cyber libel charges, sentencing them to a minimum 6 months and 1 day up to a maximum of 6 years in jail. (READ: Rappler statement on cyber libel conviction: Failure of justice, failure of democracy)
An effort to silence critics
“It is evident from the actions of the current administration that there is a clear effort on stifling its critics and silencing dissent,” the Trinity University of Asia - Media and Communication Society said in a statement.
Aside from the cyber libel case, Ressa faces 7 other charges, stemming from the mother case over the company's PDRs, which the Court of Appeals had ruled to be already cured.
For Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP)’s The Catalyst, these attempts to stifle dissent and critical reportage “became very crucial, recognizing also this exact period of time when the thin line that separates the power of the judiciary, legislative, and executive, is no longer visible.”
“The conviction of Rappler's journalists is the narrative of the critical independent media who have been constantly victimized by the State’s desperation to cripple the limbs of democracy,” The Catalyst said in a statement.
It added how these attempts to silence the press aren’t new but manifested in the long-standing case of alternative media outfits being a constant target of red-tagging, harassment, and unlawful apprehension, the politically-motivated killings of community journalists, and the infiltration of chilling effect to other media giants.
Authoritarian regime on the way?
For the University of the Philippines Broadcasting Association, this move against the media is an attack to Rappler’s right, as a press, to be one of the government’s watchdogs.
Over a month after the shutdown of media giant ABS-CBN, the group said that “this guilty verdict is a clear move to, once again, silence institutions that report on the truth."
The Communicator supported this statement, noting how the verdict made it visible that an authoritarian regime will soon reach a full blow.
“It's visible that we are gearing towards an authoritarian regime under Duterte where journalists, critics, and dissenters left and right are being persecuted for voicing their dismay against the mishaps of the government,” the group said.
A 'dangerous' precedent
Tinig ng Plaridel (TNP) also pointed out that the decision set a dangerous precedent for all journalists who were critical of the government.
“This merely opens the floodgates for more possible cyber libel charges to be filed against other journalists. With this, the chilling message that this administration wants to send resonates loud and clear: that journalists would do better to toe the line than hold it,” TNP said in a statement.
It also called on the judiciary to “uphold its independence as arbiters of the law.”
“We demand that the courts uphold the freedom of the press and recognize these trumped up charges for what they are: attempts to silence President Duterte's perceived enemies,” it said.
TNP, moreover, vows to stand in solidarity with the media. “We vow to stand our ground against all forms of censorship. For a free and liberating press will always be at the service of the masses, and not the authority,” it said.
An attack to all
Akbayan Youth also reiterated that the verdict doesn’t just affect journalists but ordinary Filipino citizens as well.
“The decision on this case affects all of us. The "retroactivity clause" effectively vested by this verdict on the Cybercrime law can be weaponized against ordinary citizens. Any posts published online before the law was enacted in 2012 can become the basis of a libel case,” Akbayan Youth stressed.
“Now, whenever the powerful dislikes a story from a journalist, they can always scour from old stories and file charges, as they did with Rappler,” it continued.
Despite all these attacks, CEGP urged other campus journalists to not crouch in fear and called on the Filipino people to fight as a growing resistance against “Duterte's tyrannical rule.”
"But the alliance of campus press shall always fight back. We are not afraid. Together, we will hold the line," CEGP national president Daryl Angelo Baybado said.
Many other organizations and student groups shared their statement of support:
Student Council Alliance of the Philippines
Akbayan Youth - Cebu
UP Diliman University Student Council