NBI Subpoenas Rappler CEO, Former Reporter Re Cyber Libel Complaint


CMFR/PHILIPPINES — Scarcely a week after  the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked online news site Rappler’s incorporation papers, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) subpoenaed  CEO Maria Ressa and a former reporter last January 18 in connection with an online libel complaint filed by a businessman.

The NBI summoned Ressa and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. for supposedly violating  the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act (Republic Act 10175) by publishing the article, “CJ using SUVs of ‘controversial’ Businessmen” which appeared in the  Rappler site on 29 May 2012.

Santos reported five years ago that businessman Wilfredo Keng had been allowing the late former Chief Justice Renato Corona the use of his sports utility vehicle. The report also claimed that Keng was involved in human trafficking and other illegal activities. Corona was facing an impeachment trial at the time the report was published online.

A copy of Keng’s complaint obtained by CMFR said that Rappler published the piece “without observing ethical standards of journalism.” Rappler in its own report argued that Santos’ May 2012 story included Keng’s side.

Santos’ report was published four months before the signing of the Cybercrime Prevention Act.  The retroactive application of laws is prohibited by the Constitution, but in a report in Rappler, Keng’s lawyers justified the complaint by saying that because the article is online, it is still available for public consumption.

In the same report, Rappler’s lawyer Jose Jesus “JJ” Disini said that under the Revised Penal Code (RPC) of the Philippines, libel has a prescriptive period of one year, which has obviously lapsed.

Libel is still a criminal offense in the Philippines despite  calls by media groups for its decriminalization, and the UN Human Rights Council’s describing the 86-year-old Philippine libel law  as “excessive.”

The penalty for online libel was raised in 2012 a degree higher than  for libel in print or broadcast as specified in the 1932 libel law in the Revised Penal Code. Conviction can mean imprisonment for as long as 12 years.

According to another Rappler report, a third subpoena for the same complaint was also sent to businessman Benjamin Bitanga, an incorporator of one of Rappler Holdings’ shareholders. Rappler, however, clarified that Bitanga is not a board member of Rappler Incorporated, adding that it is his son, James Bitanga, who sits on the board.

A day before the issuance of the subpoenas, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II had officially given the NBI authority to investigate Rappler through Department Order 017, an order  to conduct a case build-up for Rappler’s  “possible violation of the Constitution and other laws.”