Maria Ressa: Meet Duterte-critic journalist found guilty of cyber libel in Philippines
Ressa and her news portal Rappler have been accused by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and his supporters of peddling fake news. But press freedom advocates say the trial is aimed at intimidating those who challenge Duterte's rule and his deadly crackdown on illicit drugs.
Embattled Philippines journalist Maria Ressa, the head of a news website known for its tough scrutiny of President Rodrigo Duterte, faces up to six years in jail after being found guilty of cyber libel by a Manila court on Monday in what is being seen as a test case for media freedom in the country.
Ressa, 55, and press freedom groups have described the decision as a “politically motivated prosecution” by the Duterte government.
Ressa, chief executive of online news outlet Rappler, was charged with cyber libel over a 2012 article, updated in 2014, that linked a businessman to murder and trafficking of humans and drugs, citing information contained in an intelligence report from an unspecified agency.
Rappler staffer Reynaldo Santos Jr., who wrote the story was also convicted of cyber libel.
A former CNN journalist and a TIME Person of the Year, Ressa was arrested early last year in the Manila offices of Rappler which she founded in 2012 and which has gained prominence for its unflinching coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte and his brutal war on drugs which has claimed thousands of lives.
Ressa has been indicted multiple times on libel and tax evasion charges. Duterte says the charges of tax evasion are legitimate and have nothing to do with Rappler's reporting, while the government stresses that the "cyber-libel" case currently being tried was brought by the businessman.
After handing down the verdict, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa said freedom of the press could not be used as a "shield". The judge said Rappler offered no proof to back up its allegations against the businessman.
Ressa, who had denied any wrong doing, was allowed to post bail. Speaking after the verdict, she said it was "not unexpected."
"We will keep fighting… I appeal to you, the journalists in the room the Philippines who have been listening -- to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. So I appeal again. Not be afraid. Because it you don't use your rights, you will lose them."
Born in the Philippines, Ressa moved to the US as a child after martial law was declared by Ferdinand Marcos in the early 1970s. She focused on education and after studying at the Princeton University, Ressa returned to the Philippines to "find roots", the BBC reported.
Her return coincided with the 1986 People Power Revolution - when Filipinos took to the streets to overthrow Marcos. Her career in jourmalism made her meet Duterte in the 1980s for the first time, when he was mayor of Davao city.
She went on to hold a number of notable posts, including bureau chief for US network CNN in the Philippines and Indonesia, and heading the news division of Philippine TV channel ABS-CBN.
Later, Ressa founded Rappler -- merging "rap" meaning to talk and "ripples, to make waves" -- she once explained. She had ambitions of making Rappler the biggest news site in the Philippines, so "hired the smartest 20-somethings we could find" and "embraced social media".
Rappler now has almost four million followers on Facebook and has become known for its intelligent analysis and hard-hitting investigations. The site gained a lot of attention in 2015, when Duterte told Ressa he had killed three people.
Observers say Ressa has been central to Rappler's success. She has personally reported on the spread of government propaganda on social media, while other Rappler stories have taken a critical look at issues of misogyny, human rights violations and corruption.
The President has banned Rappler's reporters from covering his official activities, and last year the government revoked the news portal’s operating licence.
The cyber libel is among the numerous lawsuits filed against Ressa and Rappler that have drawn global concern about a free and open media in the Southeast Asian country.
Rappler's operating license was rescinded in 2018 over alleged foreign ownership violations, and it is also dealing with a case involving alleged tax evasion. Both cases are ongoing.
THREAT TO MEDIA
Press freedom in the Philippines has deteriorated rapidly under Duterte. Media watchdogs have said the charges against Ressa were trumped up and aimed at intimidating those who challenge Duterte's rule, in particular his deadly crackdown on illicit drugs.
The country now ranks 136th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index.
Last month, the Philippines's largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, which had also reported heavily on the deadly drug war, was forced off the air by a cease-and-desist order.
In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists denounced the move and said it "deprived the public of crucial news and information when they most need it."