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PH media coverage subdued on the verdict on Rappler | CMFR

PH media coverage subdued on the verdict on Rappler

CMFR file photo.

RAPPLER CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. were found guilty of cyber-libel by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila RTC Branch 46 on June 15, on charges filed by businessman William Keng in October 2017.

Media coverage was relatively subdued in reporting the landmark case that has come to embody the plight of the media under the Duterte administration.

The decision said both Ressa and Santos violated Section 4(c)(4) of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. They were sentenced to imprisonment of 6 months and 1 day up to 6 years, and ordered to pay PHP200,000 for moral damages and PHP200,000 for exemplary damages to the complainant. Both were granted bail pending an appeal.

Media broke the news as Estacio-Montesa handed down the verdict in a ruling seen worldwide as a blow to Philippine press freedom; picking up the statements of solidarity with the two journalists from press freedom watchdogs and human rights advocates.

Some news accounts, including reports from Manila Bulletin and the Daily Tribune, carried Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque’s denial of political influence driving the decision, without referring to the president’s previously expressed hostility toward the online news site. Other reports, meanwhile, including one from Rappler itself, did recall President Rodrigo Duterte’s threats against Rappler for its critical coverage of the drug war and submissive pivot to China.

Much as the local media sounded the alarm on media intimidation and harassment, reports were limited to the quotes of those views. In reporting the case, journalists did not provide the public interest involved which should have included the impeachment of then Chief Justice Renato Corona. His use of vehicles provided by businessmen were salient to the issues of lifestyle being discussed during the impeachment trial.

There were also very few sources cited who attempted the broader discussion of the importance of media freedom in a democracy as this allows the robust evaluation of government’s exercise of power, serving as the all important check of its abuse. Most media failed to refer to the long-standing scandal of criminal libel in the Philippines, despite the strong defense of press freedom in the Constitution.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from June 13 to June 17, 2020.

Coverage of the promulgation

Online and print media provided limited preliminary coverage of the case. Among the broadcast media monitored, only ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol reported before the promulgation on June 15.

Maria Ressa was arrested in February 2019, causing her to spend overnight in detention in an office in the NBI. The trial went on for eight months. The public would have found useful a review of the case before the promulgation. The case had become a cause célèbre globally.

Ressa was included among the journalists cited by TIME Magazine’s among Persons of the Year. Every media watchdog organization had weighed in with condemnation of the Cyber-Act which included cyber-libel among the crimes despite the continued calls to decriminalize libel.

The court limited the number of journalists in the courtroom to three – Rappler’s Lian Buan, CNN Philippines’ Anjo Almario and on the international front, BBC’s Howard John. The rest of the media had to rely on the press briefing held by the defense after the verdict.

Cable news channels CNN Philippines and ANC covered live the post-decision conference held by the defense, while other news organizations streamed the briefing online.

The verdict made headlines in print media and landed on the primetime newscast. But the news cycle did not keep the issue alive for more than just a few days.

“Dangerous precedent”

Rappler’s case has set a dangerous precedent for the free press.

CMFR cites the following among the news organizations which took time to provide more than surface reporting of the case.

Lian Buan’s Rappler report, published along with several primers and explainers on the case, discussed the ruling’s effect on confidential sources. Montesa faulted the online news site for allegedly not verifying its sources. Buan recalled Rappler’s argument that Santos can be considered an exception to the presumption of malice which is an important element in libel, because he was just reporting on a confidentially-sourced report. Furthermore, Buan noted that Montesa’s 37-page ruling did not discuss how to treat such confidential sources despite agreeing during the trial, that the Sotto Law allows Rappler to protect the “confidentiality of its source.”

OneNews’ Vince Nonato reported on how the ruling affects the prescriptive period for online libel. Nonato recalled how prosecutors found a way to pin down Ressa and Santos for an article published before the enactment of the Cybercrime Act in 2012, skirting the ban on the retroactive application of penal statutes, by citing the update of Santos’ report in 2014 as a re-publication. Rappler’s legal team argued that the “multiple publication” theory was not applicable because the 1988 case cited by the prosecution was not concerned with re-publication as a basis for offense. The legal team further argued that the theory was only used in Supreme Court (SC) decisions involving print media, not online articles like Rappler’s.

Nonato’s report also cited Lyceum of the Philippines College of Law lecturer Romel Bagares who said, “Under the judge’s interpretation of digital publication and republication, opening access to the digital archives is republication. In other words, your articles from three years ago or even 10 years ago can be used to sue you for cyber libel on the ground that they had been republished, since the prescription period, according to the judge, is 12 years, under the Cybercrime Act.”

Kristine Joy Patag and Jonathan De Santos’ Philstar.com report, published on the day of the promulgation, focused on how the ruling highlights the existing problems in criminal libel. The report called attention to its continued use as a tool to intimidate the press. The report further noted that an accuser can go after any social media user even up to 12 years after an article or post was published. Compared to the local reporting, coverage from the international news organizations was more distinguished with what appeared a greater appreciation of profound institutional questions reflected by the decision, giving these more prominence that these questions richly deserved.