Democracy dies by a thousand cuts

JV Arcena - The Philippine Star

When a Philippine court on June 15 convicted journalist Maria Ressa, executive editor of the online news site Rappler, for cyber libel, criticisms from both the local and international fronts were quick and cutting.

A major blow to press freedom. A proof of a broken rule of law. A travesty of justice. This is how democracy dies.

As a former journalist, and finding myself at the office by the Pasig River that was on the receiving end of all the stinging rebuke, it became imperative for me to take a second hard look at the verdict.

Ressa, along with former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr., are the first journalists in the Philippines to be convicted of cyber libel.

In handing out a guilty verdict, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa also awarded $8,000 for moral and exemplary damages to the complainant, businessman Wilfredo Keng, but allowed Ressa and Santos to post bail, pending an appeal.

Critics have zeroed in on two legal issues: the prescription period for cyber libel and the republication of an online news article.

Libel, under the Revised Penal Code, has a prescription period of only a year. And since Rappler’s article was published in 2012, and Keng filed his complaint only in 2017, they argue that the case should have been dismissed immediately. The cyber libel provision of the cybercrime law, however, is silent on the prescription period. The Department of Justice then used Republic Act No. 3326 which states that for special laws that are punishable by jail time of six years or more, the prescription period then becomes 12 years.

As to the issue of republication, the article was published on May 29, 2012, and the cybercrime law was only enacted on Sept. 12, 2012. Penal laws cannot be applied retroactively. But in February 2014, Rappler corrected a typographical error – a misspelled ‘evation’ to ‘evasion’ – prompting the DOJ to consider it a republication, and is thus now covered by the cybercrime law.

These two issues are within the province of the legislature, and I am not a lawyer. But what bothers me is how media organizations, human rights groups, and even foreign state actors were quick to use these issues to question the verdict, package the conviction as an attack on press freedom, and link the issue to President Rodrigo Duterte.

I must have missed something, because critics are certainly missing the most basic issue at the heart of all these contentious arguments: Were the rights of Wilfredo Keng violated when Rappler published a single-source article that maligned his name and reputation? Was the article in question libelous? And did Rappler adhere to the basic journalism tenets of fairness and balance when it failed to publish Keng’s side?

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