We’ve written about reporter Maria Ressa, who started the successful news site The Rappler in the Philippines. Ressa, herself, is a force of nature, who has upset a lot of people with her incredibly detailed and thorough reporting. Last year, we wrote about how the Duterte government was trying to intimidate and silence her with bogus charges, claiming that because she had accepted grant money from US foundations, she was engaged in tax evasion.
Today things ramped up quite a bit with the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) (the Filipino equivalent of the FBI) coming to arrest Ressa at her offices, claiming that she violated a “cyberlibel” law. Incredibly, the article that the government claims is libelous… was written four months before the law they claim it violated actually became law.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) recommended the filing in court of cyber libel charges against Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr over a story published in May 2012 – or 4 months before the law that they allegedly violated was enacted.
The case, filed by the DOJ, stemmed from a complaint by businessman Wilfredo Keng, who was identified in a Rappler article as the owner of the SUV that then-chief justice Renato Corona had used during the impeachment trial.
Keng complained not about his alleged ownership of the vehicle, but about the backgrounder on him as having alleged links to illegal drugs and human trafficking, based on intelligence reports.
When the officers came to arrest Ressa at her office, some of her colleagues tried to film the situation on their mobile phones, and the NBI agents tried to get them to stop:
The arrest warrant vs Maria Ressa is being served at the Rappler HQ now, an officer part of the serving party who introduced himself to be part of the NBI tried to prohibit me from taking videos — WHICH IS PART OF MY JOB pic.twitter.com/TElJzSjJer
— Aika Rey (@reyaika) February 13, 2019
In response to this Rappler has said it will not give in to the intimidation:
“We are not intimidated. No amount of legal cases, black propaganda, and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line. These legal acrobatics show how far the government will go to silence journalists, including the pettiness of forcing me to spend the night in jail.”
The statement further lays out why the charges are clearly bogus and trumped up:
A complaint was filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng 5 years after a story was published on May 29, 2012, or months before the cybercrime law was enacted. Our story said former chief justice Renato Corona used a vehicle registered under the name of Mr Keng, who, based on intelligence reports and previously published stories, had alleged links to illegal drugs and human trafficking. We called Mr Keng and got his side before the story was published.
The filing of the case is preposterous and baseless. No less than NBI Cybercrime Division chief Manuel Eduarte closed an investigation in February 2018 after finding no basis to proceed, given that the one-year prescriptive period had lapsed. Eight days later, however, the NBI revived the case, and filed it with the Department of Justice on the basis of a theory they call “continuous publication.”
This is a dangerous precedent that puts anyone – not just the media – who publishes anything online perennially in danger of being charged with libel. It can be an effective tool of harassment and intimidation to silence critical reporting on the part of the media. No one is safe.
This is why in the US (and other countries) we have what’s known as the single publication rule, in that the date of original publication is the date at which any statute of limitations clock starts ticking (mostly). Yet, it appears the Philippines is arguing for no single publication rule and that “continuous publication” means liability can last forever. Furthermore, even if this was libelous (which sounds questionable), shouldn’t libel be a civil matter between two private parties, rather than involving the criminal justice system?
And, of course, remember, that the Philippines’ Constitution has a close analogue of the 1st Amendment in the US (there it’s their Section 4):
No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.
That would certainly suggest that the law being used to arrest Ressa is unconstitutional. Various journalism organizations are already condemning this arrest as a clear attempt at silencing Ressa and Rappler in their critical reporting of the Duterte government:
“The Philippine government’s legal harassment of Rappler and Ressa has now reached a critical and alarming juncture,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We call on Filipino authorities to immediately release Ressa, drop this spurious cyber libel charge, and cease and desist this campaign of intimidation aimed at silencing Rappler.”
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