I WISH we could say that with the reading of the court’s verdict in the cyberlibel trial of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa et al., the nation’s public life is finally delivered from her many travails and schemes.
But sadly, before Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 could even finish reading her decision to convict Ms. Ressa and Rappler’s former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. for violating Section 4(c)(4) of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, the wheels of propaganda were already rolling to depict the court’s verdict to the nation and the world as a monumental setback for press freedom, as the crucifixion of an exemplar of journalism, and as the handiwork of the strongman regime of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The people that rushed to sing in chorus to make this pronouncement came from everywhere; they were clearly orchestrated to catch the TV newscasts and the front pages of newspapers, and calculated to elicit dismay or condemnation.
All the usual suspects had ready statements for the media. At home, oppositionists and the yellow crowd delivered their spiel. The Manila-based Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines had a lengthy statement; so did the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
Internationally, media organizations, particularly in the United States media, quickly weighed in with dire words about the state of the press in the country. The human rights pressure groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, one United Nations unit, and the US embassy expressed concern about the court ruling against Ressa.
Even Hillary Clinton joined the parade.
“Ressa… and the Rappler team are being singled out for their critical reporting of the Duterte administration,” Amnesty International said.
“With this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall.”
Human Rights Watch said the case “will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom.”
One comment said that the ruling will have a “chilling effect” on the media. The phrase, which was popularized by US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan means “an action or situation that inhibits free speech or threatens to intimidate or dispirit the press.”
Drawing attention away from verdict
The primary object of all the noise is to draw attention away from the explicit court verdict, which convicts Ressa of cyberlibel and levied fines and could even result in imprisonment.
It is also to shift attention toward President Duterte and his administration, and his allegedly authoritarian moves against critics, among others. It seeks to stitch together into one broad policy the recent nonrenewal of ABS-CBN Corp.’s franchise and Ressa’s conviction.
The explicit objective is to portray Ressa’s conviction as a cause célèbre (poster) for press freedom under siege by a Duterte government that is allegedly silencing critics in the media.
Ms. Maria Ressa, a Filipino-American who carries a US passport and has never voted in the Philippines, is presented as an exemplar for Filipino journalists to emulate.
This maneuver is designed as partly a response to the multiple cases that Ms. Ressa and Rappler have to face at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and in the courts.
The heavy negative publicity against the administration, it is hoped, could induce President Duterte to sway the SEC and the courts to rule in Rappler’s favor.
Facts of the libel complaint
The propaganda has assiduously portrayed Maria Ressa as a media heroine and victim of oppression, and Mr. Duterte as a dictator.
The problem with this line of argument is that it does not address the allegations and facts of businessman Wilfredo Keng’s libel complaint. It runs away from them. Indeed at the trial, Ressa and Santos did not even try to answer the charge.
The bare facts of the complaint cooked their fate.
The libel trial stemmed from Keng’s complaint over a Rappler story in 2012 about his alleged ties to the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona. Ressa did not write the article and government investigators initially dismissed the businessman’s complaint. But state prosecutors later filed charges against her and Reynaldo Santos Jr., the former Rappler journalist who wrote it, under a cybercrime statute passed in 2014.
The article central to the case is a May 2012 story in the Rappler website, which was updated in February 2014. Justice department prosecutors said this counted as multiple publication, and the court held that this update — which Rappler said was just to correct a typographical error — was mere hearsay.
The court noted Keng’s contention that he and his team repeatedly asked Rappler to publish his side, but the news site did not.
“A news organization who claims to adhere to accuracy, fairness and balance in terms of reporting, would have retracted, or at the very least issued a clarificatory article if there have been some indications of falsity in its previous article… This clearly shows actual malice,” the decision said.
Ressa contended that as an executive editor, she does not edit stories that Rappler publishes, including the assailed article. But the court called Rappler’s non-usage of the term “editor-in-chief” a “scheme… a clever ruse to avoid the liability of the officers of a news organization who can be held responsible for libel under Article 360 of the Revised Penal Code,” in relation to the Cybercrime Prevention Act.
The court ruled, however, that Rappler Inc. had no liability in the case because the prosecution did not adduce evidence against the company.
Striking a balance
In her decision, Judge Montesa said: “The court is mandated to decide solely on the basis of the evidence presented by the parties and to apply the law. No more, no less.”
“The courts are tasked to strike a balance between the enforcement of one’s right to speak his mind and the protection of another’s right against defamation of his honor and reputation without regard to the stature of the personalities involved,” the ruling read.
This decision is consistent with existing jurisprudence and the requirements of justice.
Rights of individuals vs press rights
The great journalist and political theorist Walter Lippmann laid down the key principle in approaching the rights of individuals as against the rights of the press. He wrote:
“What are the rights of individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures by the press in the field of their reputations and their private lives? Those rights must be clearly defined and must be acknowledged by anyone who sees the freedom of the press as part of, rather than independent of, a free society.”
The freedom of the individual is protected by law along with the freedom of the press.
Those individuals and organizations who so readily condemn the court’s Ressa decision as a blow against press freedom, must explain why they blithely assail a ruling affirming the rights of an individual, and favor the side of those who violated those rights.
This, to my mind, is a perversion of the very idea of free speech and press freedom.
The media cannot have a claim to rights that are superior in importance to the rights of an individual citizen to his reputation and or his privacy.
Where’s the journalism?
I have also wondered about the insistence of international media organizations in portraying Maria Ressa as an exemplar in journalism, someone to be emulated by our journalists.
I feel entitled to raise this point, because I have spent some three decades of my life in journalism, and I have served in posts as varied as reporter, assistant editor, associate editor, editor and even publisher of newspapers and magazines in our country.
I took interest in Ms. Ressa’s work as a journalist, so I have taken the time to look for samples of her writing online, in order to read for myself her views and musings on our profession and public affairs.
To my surprise, there is literally nothing to read of what has been written by “Maria Ressa.”
Rappler itself does not have anything that bears Ms. Ressa’s imprint.
How does one become a journalist without writing, and become an exemplar at that?
To say that Ressa did much of her work in broadcasting is no explanation. The greats in the annals of broadcasting, including Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite, did a lot of writing themselves. They were never just newsreaders. They were exemplars.