Rappler’s cautionary tale: First, they came for the journalists. Next, they could come for you
The grounds for the arrest of Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. pose not only a threat to journalists, but to any Filipino on social media as well
Jun 16, 2020
Following a rampage of threats to our democracy, Maria Ressa’s charge of cyber libel comes early morning, two days after the country’s Independence Day. Ressa, CEO of Rappler, along with researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr., were found guilty of cyber libel over an article that said fomer Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona used a vehicle registered under the name of businessman Wilfredo Keng who had alleged links to illegal drugs and human trafficking.
In October 2017, five years after the investigative report was published, Keng filed the case against Rappler based on the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (RA 10175), which was only signed into law in September 2012, four months after Santos’ article was posted on May 29 of the same year.
Ressa and Santos filed a counter-affidavit stating that no criminal law is retroactive as the investigative report was published four months before the enactment of RA 10175. In March 2018, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) cybercrime division chief Manuel Antonio Eduarte countered this by saying that a libelous article is considered a “continuing crime” until and unless the article is taken down.
“Unlike published materials on print, defamatory statements online, such as those contained in the libelous article written and published by the subjects, is indubitably considered as a continuing crime until and unless the libelous article is removed or taken down,” the NBI noted in a transmittal letter last March 2, 2018.
The people incriminated
Rappler’s counsel JJ Disini said that the basis for Ressa and Santos’ arrest is dangerous to journalists and bloggers alike.
“If the theory is that if a libelous article is published in the past, and continues to be accessible today, and that constitutes libel today, then no one is safe. Anyone that has a libelous article that continues to be accessible may be charged with libel, and moving forward, this affects everyone, not just media, even bloggers,” said Disini last January 22, 2018 when he accompanied Ressa to the NBI to comply with the subpoena.
Journalists may be at the forefront of this resolution’s receiving end, but bloggers and civilians posting online can be accused of libel on the same grounds. Using the accuser’s narrative, fair judgment is shrouded. With millions online and thousands of bloggers on the rise who have been commenting, sharing and posting, past content that was intended for the time it was originally posted can now suddenly be weaponized to the offensive’s present advantage.
“If this is upheld or is adopted by the State, this to me is an example of a breakdown of the rule of law. It’s a redefinition that has a tremendous impact on journalists in particular because it’s a press freedom issue, and anyone publishing anything,” Ressa said on the day of her January 2018 NBI appearance.
Content creation minus freedom
Ressa and Santos’ conviction is a precedent to what content creators, a term widely used to refer to those who contribute information to any media, may soon face. Content creators’ forms of expression and the platforms they utilize become a minefield. YouTube videos, Instagram stories, tweets, blog posts, artworks and all other forms of content can be monitored and if someone takes offense from something posted years back, then a bomb explodes—leaving you in the rubble.
The decision to convict CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. for cyber libel (while certainly appealable) is but another demonstration of the Duterte government's weaponization of law against those who dare speak truth to power.  pic.twitter.com/T3xBMnXZVe
— Leila de Lima (@SenLeiladeLima) June 15, 2020
“The decision to convict CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. for cyber libel (while certainly appealable) is but another demonstration of the Duterte government’s weaponization of law against those who dare speak truth to power,” wrote detained Senator Leila de Lima.
Taking down content for fear that they may be used to incriminate the creator shows just how unsafe it is to be a content creator in the Philippines. Mandated by Article III of the Constitution under Section 4 on freedom of speech and the press, everyone is supposed to be guaranteed the freedom of expression, to publish what is relevant and informative to the public. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Article 19 states that everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information.
Now, there is fear in speaking out—a fear instilled by the government. Must we all hide under an incognito tab?
— Rappler (@rapplerdotcom) June 15, 2020
“It is not just a case that a journalist should be worried about. Anybody who’s concerned about free speech should be concerned about this case,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University at Rappler’s Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation broadcast yesterday, Jun. 15.
Amal Clooney, Britain’s special envoy on media freedom, wrote in The Washington Post, “If Maria is convicted and locked up for doing her work, the message to other journalists and independent voices is clear: Keep quiet, or you’ll be next.”
A typo trumps democracy
Two years after Santos’ story was published, they updated the article to correct the spelling of the word “evasion” (from “evation”) and the updated URL of images. This update was used by the Department of Justice (DOJ) against Rappler’s affidavit that stated that the Revised Penal Code extinguishes criminal liability within one year.
The typo allowed the DOJ to continue its tirade against Rappler—a moment of victory in curtailing press freedom. The Philippines’ Justice department actually used a typo correction to trample upon a vanguard of press freedom. When a typographical error trumps democracy, can we trust what defines justice in this country?
“A threat to the freedom of even a single Filipino is a threat to all of our freedoms. If the law and our government institutions can be brought to bear upon Ms. Ressa, then we should be wary of what this means to the freedoms of ordinary citizens,” Vice President Leni Robredo said in a statement yesterday, Jun. 15.
Senator Francis Pangilinan echoed the same sentiments. “The silencing of critics and the attacks on the media has been going on for three years now. And unless we stand up, speak out, and vigorously oppose the tyranny in our midst, their conviction will not be the last,” he said.
In fear of the retroactive
With the Anti-Terror Bill nearing legal reality, the government can use cyber libel to threaten our democracy. Not only could citizens be tagged as terrorists, they can also be accused of libel.
“I appeal to you, the journalists in the room, the Filipinos listening, to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid […] If you don’t use your rights, you will lose them,” Ressa said addressing the media yesterday. “Hindi lang po ito tungkol sa amin, tungkol po ito sa inyo. Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right of the Filipino citizen […] If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything.”
Other than the impending Anti-Terror Bill, the government now has another weapon in their arsenal. The retroactive enactment of the cyber libel law spells that even those who choose to stay quiet once Duterte signs the bill can still be incriminated for their past actions.
In the face of the government’s tyranny, we must hold the line.
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