Disclaimer: Adrienne is a Filipino-American.
PHILIPPINES — In Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, character Padme Amidala — a senator and mother of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa — once said “So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.”
But, in the Philippines, it died in a quiet courtroom with the defendants, their lawyers and a few journalists.
Renowned Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher and writer Reynaldo Santos Jr were found guilty in a Manila court of “cyber libel” charges, a verdict that many critics worry may set a troubling precedent in more than just the Philippines.
Ressa, the co-founder and executive editor of Rappler, a Philippine news website, and Santos, the site’s former writer, were sentenced to a minimum of 6 months and 1 day to a maximum of 6 years in jail, Rappler reported . They’ve also been ordered to pay 200,000 pesos (~ $3,986) in moral damages and another 200,000 pesos in exemplary damages.
The two are entitled to post-conviction bail and can appeal the verdict.
The nearly-one-year-old trial stems from charges filed by a Filipino-Chinese businessman Wilfredo Keng. Santos published the story on May 29, 2012, alleging Keng — who the site alleged was linked to illegal drugs and human trafficking — had a connection with former Philippine chief justice Renato Corona.
After months of a back-and-forth with the Philippine Supreme Court and National Bureau of Investigation’s cybercrime division, the NBI recommended to the Department of Justice that Rappler be prosecuted for cyber libel.
According to the 1930’s Philippine Act No. 3815 , libel is “a public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person… ” In May 2012 , it was amended to cover libel “committed through a computer system.”
“I think that’s very important for people in the Philippines to know. Maria and Rappler have been the subject of extensive media and political attention well beyond your country,” said award-winning journalist Ann Marie Lipinski, Rappler reported . “What has happened in her case and what will happen today will continue to resonate far beyond the Philippines.”
Ressa, 56, was born in Manila, Philippines. She was ten years old when her mother took her to the United States and was adopted by her step-father. The family relocated to Toms River, New Jersey where she went to high school and later moved on to Princeton University for undergrad, the Asbury Park Press reported. She then attended the University of the Philippines.
Ressa was never shy of criticizing the Philippine government, especially now during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s term. In October 2015, she wrote of the then-presidential candidate’s “planned dictatorship.” Rappler itself is not hesitant to report on Duterte’s “war on drugs,” which has reportedly killed over 12,000 Filipinos — including minors — who are believed to be involved with drug crimes, according to Human Rights Watch.
But Monday’s verdict is just another tackle at Filipinos’ freedom of speech.
Duterte has yet to sign the Anti-Terror Bill , which was passed earlier this month and could threaten any journalist, activist or citizen’s freedom of expression.
Hundreds of Filipinos, Filipino-Americans and non-Filipinos have taken to social media with protests and info-graphs in an attempt to “junk” the Anti-Terror bill as well as fundraisers to help bail out protesters and activists.
On May 5, ABS-CBN, Philippines’ largest broadcasting network, was forced to shut down after Duterte refused to renew the network’s contract. Duterte claimed the network spread “fake news.”
Earlier this month in an email interview, a Filipino-American, who lives in Jersey City, told Slice of Culture that she fears for her family and friends’ safety in the Philippines because they cannot be openly critical of the government.