US expresses concern over Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos’ cyberlibel conviction

Rappler founder Maria Ressa. Photo: Ressa/FB
Rappler founder Maria Ressa. Photo: Ressa/FB

The United States government yesterday said it is “concerned” over the conviction of Maria Ressa, the chief executive officer of Rappler, and the news website’s former writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyberlibel.

Read: Despite Maria Ressa’s conviction, Malacañang insists Duterte supports press freedom

Department of State Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that the U.S. is “concerned by the trial court’s verdict against journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. and calls for resolution of the case in a way that reinforces the U.S. and Philippines’ long shared commitment to freedom of expression, including for members of the press.”

Ressa and Santos were convicted by a Manila court to at least six months in prison for a 2012 report which alleged that businessman Wilfredo Keng loaned vehicles to the late former Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was impeached for undeclared wealth. The same article, using the broadsheet Philippine Star as its source, also said Keng is allegedly involved in fake cigarette smuggling and in granting special visas to Chinese nationals in exchange for a fee.

Keng has denied these allegations and filed a complaint against Rappler five years after the publication of the article. While Keng sued the journalists as a private individual, Ressa claimed the charge was politically motivated due to President Rodrigo Duterte’s vocal criticism of Rappler, which he once described as a “fake news” outlet.

Read: Duterte calls ABS-CBN a ‘thief’ and promises to block renewal of its license

In her verdict handed down earlier this week, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa said that the May 2012 article “ascribes unto Keng commissions of crimes such as drug smuggling, human trafficking, and murder which tends to dishonor, discredit, or to put him in ridicule. The article has created in the minds of ordinary readers that Keng has a disgraceful reputation.”

Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which the prosecution used as its basis for the case, was signed on Sept. 12, 2012 — four months after the Keng article was first published. The government has insisted that Rappler could still be indicted because the article was supposedly republished in February 2014 due to typographical errors.

Meanwhile, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for the Rappler founder, and tweeted that Ressa was convicted “for doing her job.”

“We must fiercely protest attacks on the press. They are attacks on democracy,” Clinton added.

Prior to Ressa and Santos’ conviction, ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcasting company, was shut down by the Duterte administration after it failed to get a new Congressional franchise. Duterte has said on multiple occasions that he would block the renewal of the franchise because ABS-CBN allegedly failed to air his 2016 election ads and had broadcast several stories that portrayed his government in a bad light.

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