A court in Philippines on Monday convicted journalist Maria Ressa of cyber libel, AP reported. Ressa is the chief executive officer of Rappler, a news website critical of the Philippines government led by Rodrigo Duterte. A former writer for the news website was also convicted.
The decision was given in a case filed in 2017 against Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr after a businessman disputed an article reported by Rappler that he claimed inaccurately linked him to a former judge of the country’s Supreme Court. The story, published in 2012, cited an unspecified intelligence report linking him to a murder, drug dealing, human trafficking and smuggling.
The journalist was charged under the country’s controversial “cyber-libel” law, which came into force in September 2012, four months after the article in question was published.
A court in Manila found Ressa and her employee guilty of libeling the businessman. Both of them were sentenced to up to six years in jail over the charges but were not immediately taken into custody. Ressa posted bail for the case last year, and her lawyer said they will appeal the verdict.
“The decision for me is devastating because it says that Rappler is wrong,” Ressa said in a news conference after the court’s verdict was handed down. She appealed to journalists and Filipinos to continue fighting for their rights “and hold power to account”. Ressa said the cyber libel charges were an attempt by Duterte’s government to silence her organisation.
The arrest of Ressa, who is a former CNN journalist, was denounced by press freedom advocates and media watchdogs as an attempt to silence critics of Duterte. But the government said the complaints were part of normal criminal procedures and were not a “press freedom issue”.
Ressa was among a group of journalists named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year. She and the media organisation have been under fire for “shining a light” on the “War on Drugs” in which the Philippines government has killed suspected drug users and “drug pushers” since 2016. Her website also works as a fact-checker for Facebook in the Philippines in the fight against fake news.