It isn’t just about Rappler

WITH THE conviction for cyber libel of Rappler’s Maria Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr., every Filipino must take the cause of freedom of expression as a personal challenge, whatever personal, political, business and other interests they may hold. We can only endure if we believe and respect that free expression and press freedom make up the cornerstone of common good.

Filipinos are called, at the very least, to ponder the meaning of this decision. For this to happen, journalists and media organization must join in common cause with Ressa and Santos; commit to ramp up support for press freedom, free expression and the Filipino people’s inalienable right to information.

The entire media community must continue to push the envelope in the exercise of their Constitutionally-protected mandate to report the truth in pursuit of public interest and good governance.

Some of this is already happening. But the verdict on Ressa and Santos is likely to instill great fear not only among journalists and civil society organizations; but ordinary citizens who have made the Internet their own personal platform.

The decision promulgated by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa declares that every truth-teller in this digital age is at risk of imprisonment not only under the terms of the 88-year old libel law but also those of the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act.

Never since the Marcos martial law regime has the threat to free expression and the protected right of the press to probe into and report matters of public concern been as pronounced as today. The verdict on Ressa and Santos in fact has occurred in the context of the continuing assaults on and harassment not only of journalists but also of such truth-tellers as reformers, dissenters, political activists and human rights defenders.

By convicting Ressa and Santos and sentencing them to a six-month to six-year prison term on the the basis of a story published before the 2012 Cyber Crime Prevention Act was passed, the Act has in effect been declared an ex post facto law whose passage the Constitution explicitly prohibits. Its later posting was still three years before the actual filing of charges by government, beyond the one year prescribed for libel.

The verdict has also affirmed the government claim that the statute of limitations on the Act extends to 12 years. Anyone who uses the Internet or any computer-based means of communication such as cell phones can thus be sued for libel within this extended period.

All of these considerations have added to the longstanding abomination of criminal libel which still holds in the country, dealing with defamation in the same punitive manner as the law treats all other crimes. The decision highlights the deep vulnerability that has hounded the free press for decades.

It is not likely that this current Congress will ever yield to consider decriminalizing libel. But this should not stop Filipinos from discussing how such a law flouts the Constitution and its protection of free speech and press freedom.

The decision serves to terrorize all Filipinos into silence and conformity with the official position. It also constricts the media’s public responsibility to investigate and report into matters related to governance and government accountability – which lies at the core of the First Amendment.

It is an attack on the very foundations of press freedom which alone produces civic engagement so necessary for democratic governance. It cuts to the quick the kind of national conversation that enables citizens to participate in public affairs, seek relevant and meaningful information crucial to their lives and fortunes. This is a matter that calls all citizens as stakeholders in the future of Philippine democracy.

The media must fix public attention on the progress of Rappler’s appeal. We call on the legal community to keep watch and insist on the observance of due process and rule of law. Civil society must adopt this cause as their own, as their separate sectoral issues depend on a free public forum to flourish.

Most important, we call on the youth to instruct themselves in these issues so they can participate in the defense of the Internet and the free expression this fosters in their lives.

What is at stake is nothing less than our shared future. We can no longer take for granted the rights and freedoms that our heroes had fought for the nation. Once again, we are called to the tasks of responsible stewardship, to nurture the legacy of democratic principles and values so we can hand these over to the generations of Filipinos to come.

The Rappler issue is not just about these two journalists and one media organization. It is a key episode in an unfinished struggle. How this ends concerns not just journalists and the media. It will shape way of life for everyone else and determine the common future we all must face.