Benilde prof sues Ressa, Rappler journo for cyberlibel over 'thesis for sale' report

Benilde prof sues Ressa, Rappler journo for cyberlibel over 'thesis for sale' report
Philippine journalist Maria Ressa (C) is surrounded by the press as she is escorted by a National Bureau Investigation (NBI) agent (L) at the NBI headquarters after her arrest in Manila on February 13, 2019. Ressa, who has repeatedly clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte, was arrested in her Manila office on February 13 in what rights advocates called an act of "persecution".
AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 8:44 a.m., January 15) — Journalists from the online news site Rappler are facing a cyberlibel complaint over a story detailing an alleged payment scheme by a college professor in Manila for students to complete the requirement.

De La Salle - College of St. Benilde professor Ariel Pineda filed the charge against reporter Rambo Talabong and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa after he was reported to be passing students in their thesis for P20,000 or about $416.

It was filed before the Manila Regional Trial Court branch 24 on December 7 and is the third cyberlibel case Ressa is facing, with an appeal ongoing for a court conviction last year.

The story, Pineda said, had "false, malicious, derogatory and highly libelous imputation" that he is a "corrupt professor or chairperson by passing thesis students for money."

Ressa and Talabong's counsel Theodore Te said both had posted bail of P30,000 each after learning that a warrant was out and will exhaust legal remedies to dismiss the charge.

"It is disturbing because it seems like cyberlibel is now the first option in case of disagreement on reporting," said Te, a former Supreme Court spokesman. "Perhaps Congress should consider whether it is high time to decriminalize libel and cyberlibel."

RELATED: Fresh cybercrime ruling highlights old problem of criminal libel

The news site, which has earned the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte for being critical of his administration, stood by its story and the editorial process it had gone through before publishing.

"While libel suits are part of the risks that come with the profession, we also know that they are a tool that is used to intimidate journalists who expose wrongdoing," Rappler said.

Talabong, in a separate statement, said that he had spent weeks to ensure fairness of the story.

In a statement on Thursday, the #HoldTheLine Coalition —  composed of press freedom groups and civil society organizations formed to support Ressa and the independent media in the Philippines — said it "stands with Maria Ressa and Rappler as they stare down yet another criminal cyber libel charge amid escalating legal harassment in the Philippines."

Referring to cyberlibel charges against journalists, the coalition said the latest complaint "further emphasizes the need to scrap criminal libel and let the news media get back to its job of reporting on the global health pandemic and other issues of critical public interest."

Journalists in the country have long called to decriminalize libel, along with its inclusion in the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 2014 had warned of the "chilling effect" it may have on free expression, while media watchdog Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said it "throws such a wide net it penalizes even legitimate expressions of opinion online." 

Ressa, along with ex-researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted in June 2020 over a story linking businessman Wilfredo Keng to human smuggling and drug trafficking operations. 

Rappler had sought to counter that the cybercrime law cannot retroactively be applied to the article which the media entity said was merely edited for a typographical error in 2014. — Christian Deiparine with reports from Kristine Joy Patag





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