Philippines Convicts Rappler Founder of Cyber-Libel

The founder and executive director of social news website Rappler was today found guilty of cyber-libel by a court in the Philippines.

Maria Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. each face up to six years in jail after becoming the first two journalists to be convicted of cyber-libel in the country. 

Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa permitted Santos and Ressa to post bail, pending an appeal. Should their convictions be upheld, each will serve a minimum custodial sentence of six months and one day. 

The cyber-libel case against the pair stemmed from a 2017 complaint filed over a Rappler story that was published in 2012, before the cybercrime law was passed.

The businessman who lodged a complaint against the Rappler duo sought damages of approximately $1m. The judge ruled that the complainant should receive the equivalent of $8,000 in local currency for moral and exemplary damages. 

Ressa has vowed to fight the judgment made against her over a case that she described in the press conference that followed her conviction "was meant to be a cautionary tale."

"It is a blow to us. But it is also not unexpected," said Ressa. "I appeal to you, the journalists in this room, the Filipinos who are listening, to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. But don't be afraid. Because if you don't use your rights, you will lose them."

The case against Ressa and Santos was seen by many as a touchstone to indicate what freedom the press will be allowed in the Philippines under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. 

It's the first of eight active cases filed against Ressa and Rappler since Duterte ascended to power in 2016.

Ressa reminded her fellow Filipinos of the inherent danger of allowing a free press to be silenced.  

"Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can't hold power to account, we can't do anything," said Ressa.

"The verdict basically kills freedom of speech and of the press," the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said, while the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines termed the verdict "a menacing blow to press freedom."

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