IBP questions jail sentence for Maria Ressa despite SC guidance to set only fines
MANILA, Philippines – The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) on Tuesday, June 16, questioned the maximum 6-year jail sentence for Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr, pointing out that the Supreme Court had nudged courts to impose only fines for libel.
Manila Regional Trial Court Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa convicted Ressa and Santos and ordered them to pay complainant Wilfredo Keng P400,000 in damages over a 2012 article that sourced an intelligence report to describe Keng as having been involved in illicit activities. (READ: What Maria Ressa conviction means for reporting confidential sources)
"There are questions and arguments regarding the correct interpretation and application of...Supreme Court Circular 08-2008 with respect to the penalties imposed. These issues can be resolved by the appellate courts," IBP national president Domingo Egon Cayosa said on Tuesday.
In 2008, then Chief Justice Reynato Puno issued Supreme Court Circular 08-2008, a guidance nudging courts to impose only fines for libel convictions, citing past cases that "indicate an emergent rule of preference for the imposition of fine only rather than imprisonment."
"The honorable judge seems not to have applied the guidance of the Supreme Court," Cayosa said in an earlier interview over CNN Philippines' The Source.
The circular was not a strict instruction to courts, as Puno reiterated that imprisonment is still a penalty of libel, and that judges can still exercise their own discretion.
"It was the discretion of the court, when the penalty is given at the court's discretion, the court is free to exercise whether to impose imprisonment or fine, do we prefer fine? We prefer acquittal but in this case the court went with imprisonment," said former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te, Ressa and Santos' lawyer.
In a recent Supreme Court case, Raffy Tulfo was imposed doubled fines amounting to P1.71 million for a libel conviction from 2010. In that case, the trial court only imposed a reduced "subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency" sentence that was altogether removed by the Court of Appeals in a decision in 2013.
Note, however, that the case involved print media.
In her ruling, Montesa said that social media has made "the keyboard mightier than the pen and thus mightier than the sword."
"Accountability and journalistic responsibility [must] be brought to bear upon online news organizations since the extent of its influence, as powered by the internet, goes beyond the physical limitation of printed publications," said the judge.
Montesa affirmed in her ruling that republication is a separate offense of libel, and that cyber libel's prescription period is 12 years, worrying lawyers and media groups that online articles have now been fully made vulnerable to cyber libel suits by government officials out to harass journalists. – Rappler.com