Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. have been found guilty of cyber libel by the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 in Metro Manila, Philippines. The country’s vice president Leni Robredo was one of those who condemned the court’s decision.
The convictions were given on June 15, 2020. The same day marked the third month Metro Manila was put under quarantine due to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“This is a chilling development,” Robredo said in a statement obtained by Rappler, an online news website Ressa founded in 2012. “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.”
Santos is a former Rappler researcher and writer. The court sentenced him and Ressa to a minimum of six months and one day to a maximum of six years in jail over charges filed by a private complainant Wilfredo Keng, a Filipino-Chinese businessman.
The court ordered Santos and Ressa to jointly and severally pay Keng 200,000 pesos (US$4,000) in moral damages and 200,000 pesos (US$4,000) in exemplary damages. Each of the accused has to pay 400,000 pesos (US$8,000) in damages once the conviction becomes final.
After being granted post-conviction bail, Santos and Ressa remain free. The conviction can be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of the Philippines.
The cyber libel case stemmed from an article written by Santos titled “CJ using SUVs of ‘controversial’ businessmen,” which alleged that the late Renato Corona, the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, had a car registered under Keng’s name. It was published on Rappler on May 29, 2012 at 7:39 a.m. and updated on February 19, 2014 at 5:42 p.m.
By “willfully, unlawfully and knowingly” republishing the said article in Rappler “with malicious intent and evil motive of attacking, injuring and impeaching” Keng’s reputation, Santos and Ressa were accused of violating Section 4 (c)(4) of Republic Act No. 10175 also known as the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. This particular law in the Philippines was approved on September 12, 2012.