Investigative journalist, founder and editor-in-chief of independent news and fact-checking organisation Rappler, Maria Ressa, and Rey Santos Jr, a journalist who also works for Rappler, have been found guilty of cyber libel by the Philippines court.
Ressa was sentenced to a minimum of 6 months and a maximum of 6 years imprisonment and was granted bail pending an appeal.
A fine of approximately $8,000 (P400,000) was also imposed.
The conviction was handed down by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa in the Manila Regional Trial Court on Monday, June 15.
Ressa, former CNN bureau chief whose reporting has exposed corruption and abuses, including the execution of thousands of Filipinos in the name of a war on drugs was accused of libelling businessman Wilfredo Keng in an article published on news website, www.rappler.com.
At least, seven cases cases are pending against Ressa, a development which exposes her potentially to decades in prison.
It is believed that the allegation of foreign ownership of Ressa’s news site and tax offences are retaliation by the government against her reporting.
Ressa, one of four journalists named Time’s Person of the Year in 2018, was represented in court by an international legal team led by Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC of London’s Doughty Street Chambers.
While speaking on her conviction, Ressa said: “Today I have been convicted, but it is also the justice system in the Philippines on trial. For years I have been targeted by the authorities, following the government’s weaponisation of social media.
“Today, the judiciary became complicit in this insidious campaign to silence independent journalism and stifle press freedom. But neither I nor Rappler will be silenced. I will fight this conviction, and I will continue to do my duty, to speak out and report the truth.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines described the allegations against Ressa as an act of “persecution” by a “bully government.”
Recall that the US Senate in December 2019 also criticised the cases, adding that they were “widely viewed by human rights observers and a number of governments as part of a pattern of weaponising the rule of law to repress independent media.”