Maria Ressa 'embraces fear' but hopeful ahead of cyber libel verdict
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Ahead of the scheduled verdict on the cyber libel charge against her, Rappler Inc, and a former researcher, Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa said she's prepared for the worst but holds out hope of winning.
In an exclusive video interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) before the verdict on Monday, June 15, that could see her sentenced anywhere from 6 months to 7 years, Ressa said: "I am going to embrace my fear. I have to be ready and that starts in my head. That starts with my ability to be okay with the worst-case scenario." (READ: What you need to know about Rappler's cyber libel case)
Cyber libel is a bailable offense and appealable to the Court of Appeals in case of conviction.
"I've been the cautionary tale: be quiet or you're next... that's part of the reason why I have been targeted," said Ressa, 56. "It's a chilling effect... not just to me and to Rappler, but to journalists and to anyone who asks critical questions."
The Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 scheduled for June 15 the handing down of its verdict on Rappler, Ressa, and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr in the high profile cyber libel case.
Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa finished the trial in only 8 months in what could be the quickest libel trial in recent history.
For this case, the verdict will be handed down in a court with a limited number of people, a imposition which is part of the physical distancing rules being enforced to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
"Please be reminded that only counsels and parties to the case will be allowed inside the courtroom. This is in line with the safety protocols of the Court, in view of the Covid situation," Branch 46 said in its notice to Rappler's lawyers June 1.
The cyber libel case has constitutional implications because to be able to charge Ressa and Santos, the Department of Justice (DOJ) found an obscure law – Republic Act 3326 – to extend libel's prescription period from one year to 12 years.
Businessman Wilfredo Keng filed the case in 2017 against Rappler, Ressa, and Santos, or 5 years after the article in question was published in May 2012 linking the complainant to the late former chief justice Renato Corona. This would have ordinarily been regarded as a complaint filed after the one-year prescription period of libel had laped – as provided for in the Revised Penal Code.
The hotly contested cybercrime law is silent on the prescription period for cyber libel.
Keng has demanded P50 million in damages.
Rappler has maintained it's a harassment suit against the company, whose officers and staff face at least 11 government investigations and court cases. Ressa's libel case is among a string of criminal charges that have hit her and Rappler since 2019.
Authorities say they have not targeted Ressa for her work and are simply enforcing the law. (LIST: Cases vs Maria Ressa, Rappler directors, staff since 2018)
But press and media watchdogs say the case against Ressa is in retaliation for Rappler's independent reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration.
The website's journalists have cast a harsh light on Duterte's anti-drugs crackdown, which has killed thousands and drawn international censure despite being backed by many Filipinos.
Ressa said individual people who make up the court system and their desire "to be guided by the spirit of the law" still give her reason for optimism.
Keng is disputing parts of the article that linked him to "human trafficking and drug smuggling."
Keng presented Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) officials to say he had no derogatory record in the agency.
Rappler presented NBI legal officials who had recommended the dismissal of Keng's complaint over the lapsed prescription period.
The legal division of the NBI was overruled by the former chief of the NBI Cybercrime Division, who forwarded the complaint to the DOJ.
Rappler also presented its journalists on the witness stand. One of them, investigative head Chay Hofileña, explained to the court how Ressa had no involvement in the editing and publication of the story.
But the Keng camp appeared keen on pinning down Ressa.
Keng's camp also attempted to get the identity of Santos' source for the intelligence report where he based his article on, but Judge Montesa agreed that the Sotto law allows the journalist to withhold the identity of his source.
The multiple moves against Rappler have drawn international concern and made Ressa a cause célèbre globally for people standing up against authoritarian governments. (READ: LOOK: How much has Rappler been asked to pay for bail and bonds?)
Time magazine named Ressa a Person of the Year in 2018.
Rights watchdogs say the Duterte government has in recent weeks stepped up its campaign to silence dissent in other ways, with the nation's top broadcaster – ABS-CBN – shutdown.
Lawmkers also this month passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which allows warrantless arrests, weeks of detention without charge and other measures that critics fear could be used to crack down on peaceful government opponents.
Ressa said Duterte had cemented himself as the most powerful Filipino leader since dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose two decades in power ended in a famous "people power" uprising in 1986.
"We could even say more powerful than Marcos because he (Duterte) was able to declare martial law without even declaring martial law," Ressa said, referring to the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Ressa, who served as CNN's bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta during a nearly 35-year career, said waiting for Monday's verdict was proving an emotional challenge.
"I'm hoping. All I can do is hope," Ressa said. – Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com