In contentious ruling, Manila RTC convicts Rappler’s Maria Ressa for cyberlibel

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In a highly controversial decision closely monitored by media watchdogs around the world, the Manila Regional Trial Court convicted Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa and former employee Reynaldo Santos Jr. for cyberlibel under RA 10175 or the Cybercrime Law.

Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa and her lawyer Theodore Te during a press briefing after the promulgation of the decision. (Photo grabbed from Rappler video)

In finding Ressa and Santos guilty of the crime, Manila RTC judge Reinalda Estacio-Montesa appeared to have completely adopted the stance taken by the Department of Justice (DOJ) that the prescriptive period for cyberlibel is 12 years and not one year as provided for under the Revised Penal Code.

As a way of highlighting the main issue in the case, lawyer Marnie Tonson created a short timeline of the history of libel and cyberlibel in a Facebook post:

  • 1926: Act 3326 set 12-year prescription on violations of special laws with a six-year prison penalty
  • 1930: Act 3815 (Revised Penal Code) made a new libel law
  • 1966: RA 4661 shortened libel prescription to one year
  • 1988: SC in Soriano v. IAC set Multiple Publication Rule
  • 2012 (May): Rappler first published online Keng article
  • 2012 (Sept): RA10175 (Cybercrime Prevention Act) enacted
  • 2012 (Oct): SC issues TRO vs RA10175, suspending it
  • 2014 (Feb): SC upheld RA10175, said libel law not changed
  • 2014 (Feb): Rappler corrects typo in Keng article
  • 2016: Keng sues Rappler’s Ressa and Santos for criminal libel
  • 2020: RTC slaps Ressa and Santos with libel conviction

“Unless overturned on appeal, this RTC ruling validates the 12-year prescriptive period for filing cyberlibel suits, despite RA 4661 having shortened to one year the prescription of filing libel suits, and despite the SC ruling (in Disini v. Secretary of Justice) that the libel law referred to in RA 10175, sec. 4(c)(4) has not changed,” he wrote.

Mel Sta. Maria, dean of the FEU Institute of Law, also said in a Facebook post that the case had already prescribed before it was filed and should not have been filed in the first place.

“I disagree with the Decision that a pre-war law Act No. 3326 is controlling. WHEN the 2012 Cybercrime Law was questioned in the Supreme Court, I was one of the petitioners. The SC’s decision is clear. Cyber-libel in the Cybercrime Law on libel is NOT A NEW CRIME but merely provides a manner of committing an already exisitng offense — which is libel —- under the 1932 Revised Penal Code (RPC).”

Civil society groups have roundly criticized the ruling, saying it sets a dangerous precedent which can be used to muzzle not just the media but ordinary citizens who would dare speak out online.

“This decision is an attack on all those who value a free press and free expression. The lawsuit happens within the larger context of political repression and the Duterte regime’s vindictiveness against media institutions and journalists critical of its ineptitude and callousness,” the Concerned Artists of the Philippines said in a statement.  

“T[he] conviction demonstrates how the provisions in the Cybercrime Law are being ‘weaponized’, deployed against dissenters who rightfully assert the freedom to critique and pursue the truth in an era of whitewashing, disinformation, impunity, and lies.”

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