A look at the cyber libel charge vs Rappler, Maria Ressa

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
A look at the cyber libel charge vs Rappler, Maria Ressa
Maria Ressa (C), the CEO and editor of online portal Rappler, speaks during a protest on press freedom along with fellow journalists in Manila on Jan. 19, 2018. Philippine journalists took to the streets on January 19 in support of a news website facing state-enforced closure, accusing President Rodrigo Duterte of trampling on press freedom.
AFP Photo / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines — Armed with a Manila court order, agents of National Bureau of Investigation arrived at the headquarters of newsite Rappler on Wednesday afternoon to arrest its CEO Maria Ressa.

Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Presiding Judge Rainela Estacio-Montesa ordered law enforcement agencies to serve a warrant against Ressa in an order dated February 12 over a cyberlibel case filed by state prosecutors.

READ: NBI at Rappler office to serve warrant against CEO Ressa

The assailed article

The warrant of arrest emanated from a complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng over an article that was first published in May 2012.

He sought the NBI on October 2017 — five years since the story was published — claiming that Rappler did not observe “ethical standards of journalism” when it published the story.

He wanted Rappler, Ressa and the reporter to be held accountable under the cyberlibel law.

NBI Cybercrime Division head agent Manuel Eduarte asserted in an interview last January 2018: "Even if it was posted in 2012, but still can be seen at the time the complaint was filed or the time of the effectivity of the Cybercrime Law (it is still covered)."

"Our presumption is, as investigation is concerned, they still violated the Cybercrime Law. Except, maybe, if they had taken it down when the law took effect, then they would not have violated any law," Eduarte added.

READ: Timeline: How the Rappler case developed

NBI flip flop?

The NBI’s legal and evaluation service, after looking into Keng’s complaint, reportedly dismissed it. According to Rappler, the NBI legal team “found that the one-year prescriptive period for libel had lapsed with the complaint filed five years after the publication of the story.”

But the NBI, on March 2, 2018, revived the complaint and recommended indicting Rappler on cyberlibel charges.

NBI chief Dante Gierran was quoted in a media interview as saying that the agency did not reverse its findings because “the interview with the chief of the Cybercrime Division was only a casual giving of information on a matter that was not yet terminated.”

The violation

In a resolution dated January 10, but was made public on February 6, the DOJ approved the filing of violation of Section 4(c)(4) of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 or cyberlibel.

The Cybercrime Law was signed in September 2012.

Laws are not retroactive, and Ressa raised this in her counter-affidavit during the preliminary investigation of the complaint at the DOJ.

The DOJ, however, said the assailed article is “clearly defamatory” and “is presumed to be malicious.”

The panel of prosecutors also dismissed Rappler’s defense that they could not be charged with cyberlibel as the law was not yet in effect when the article was published.

They held that while the first publication of the article on May 29, 2012 was not covered by the Cybercrime Act of 2012, the story’s publication on Feb. 19, 2014 puts it under the “multiple publication rule.”

“Accordingly, we hold that the republication of the article as may have been modified or revised is a distinct and separate offense, for which the author, respondent Santos, should be prosecuted,” the resolution further read.

Timing of the warrant

The news site went on Facebook live past 5 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, saying that Ressa was about to be arrested.

Agents of the NBI Cybercrime Division arrived past 5:30. The news site’s reporters said they were not allowed to record the serving of the arrest.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that the Department of Justice has no information on the case, but stressed that “this is simply procedural.”

“Ms. Ressa may post bail anytime, even before the warrant is served,” he added.

The warrant, however, was served at past 6 p.m. and most courts operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday.

Without bail, Ressa would have to be detained. 

In a TV interview, Ressa said that she would post bail if a night court is open. She said that she would be going with the agents to the NBI headquarters in Padre Faura Manila.

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