Appeals court junks Ressa cyber libel appeal; Supreme Court next

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Appeals court junks Ressa cyber libel appeal; Supreme Court next
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 22: Maria Ressa speaks onstage during Unfinished Live at The Shed on September 22, 2022 in New York City.
Roy Rochlin / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

MANILA, Philippines — Rappler CEO Maria Ressa will be bringing an appeal of her conviction on cyber libel against to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals dismissed their motion for reconsideration.

“Wherefore, the motion for reconsideration is denied,” the CA’s Fourth Division says in a ruling promulgated October 10.

Ressa and former Rappler researcher Rey Santos sought reconsideration of the same CA court decision dated July 7, 2022 that affirmed Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46’s ruling that found them guilty beyond reasonable doubt for the crime of cyber libel.

FACT CHECK: Rappler's Ressa not behind bars, out on post-conviction bail

In the same July ruling, the CA also lengthened potential prison time to six months and a day to six years, eight months and 20 days.

The CA said it found the motion for reconsideration filed by Ressa and Santos had no merit.

"A careful and meticulous review of the motion for reconsideration reveals that the matters raised by the accused-appellants had already been exhaustively resolved and discussed in the assailed Decision," the ruling, penned by Associate Justice Roberto Quiroz, read.

Concurring were Associate Justices Ramon Bato Jr. and Germano Francisco Legaspi.

Ressa, in a statement, said she is disappointed by the ruling but was not surprised. "This is a reminder of the importance of independent journalism holding power to account," she added.

Her lawyer Theodore Te also found the ruling "disappointing", saying "it ignored basic principles of constitutional and criminal law as well as the evidence presented."

He said they will bring the case to the Supreme Court next.

For the legal community, this is a test case to the nascent anti-cybercrime law, while press freedom advocates have said the conviction highlights the problem in criminalizing libel and its continued use as a tool to keep journalists in line. 

RELATED: SEC has upheld order to shut down Rappler, says Ressa

On republication

Ressa and Santos argued that they merely corrected one letter in the original article published on May 29, 2012, when it was updated on Feb. 19, 2012. This, they claimed, the provisions on cyber libel — enacted into law in September 2012 — and its penalty were applied ex-post facto.

"As settled, the determination of republication is not hinged on whether the corrections made therein were substantial or not, as what matters is that the very exact libelous article was again published on a later date," the CA said.

On prescription

The CA said that the argument of Ressa and Santos that cited Wilberto Tolento v. People, a decision that settled that prescriptive period for cyber libel is 15 years "has no doctrinal value and cannot be considered as a binding precedent as it was an unsigned resolution."

It added that it cannot disregard "the stark distinction between traditional publication and online publication" since printed articles are only published once. In online publication, they said, "the commission of such offense is continuous since the such article remains there in perpetuity unless taken down."

READ: In rejecting Ressa appeal, CA says cyber libel can be filed over 15-year-old posts

"Thus, applying to the present case, the defamatory article published against Wilfredo Keng is continuously published in the Rappler website despite the lapse of one year from the time of its republication, and can still be readily consumed by anyone who has access to the cyberspace," it said.

The CA also said that the conviction of Ressa and Santos under the Cybercrime law "is not geared towards the curtailment of the freedom of speech, or to produce an unseemingly chilling effect on the users of cyberspace that would possibly hinder free speech."

"On the contrary, we echo the wisdom of the Supreme Court in the Disini case that the purpose of the law is to safeguard the right of free speech, and to curb, if not totally prevent, the reckless and unlawful use of the computer systems as a means of committing the traditional criminal offenses," it added.

Disini v. Secretary of Justice is the 2014 Supreme Court resolution that voided parts of the Cybercrime Prevention Act as unconstitutional but retained the heavier penalties for cyber libel.

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