Philippine Nobel laureate Maria Ressa will take her appeal against a conviction for cyber libel to the country’s Supreme Court after an appellate court rejected her appeal and added months to her sentence.
In June 2020, Ressa and her former colleague Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted of cyber libel, in a case that was condemned at the time as setting “an extraordinarily damaging precedent” for press freedoms. The case was brought by the businessman Wilfredo Keng after Rappler, the news site founded by Ressa, published an article linking him to illegal activities.
In July, the Court of Appeals rejected the first appeals of Ressa and Santos, and added eight months to the maximum six-year sentence imposed against them.
In a ruling dated October 10 and released yesterday, the Court of Appeals rejected a motion by Ressa and Santos to reconsider its decision against them. In its 16-page ruling, the three-judge panel said the motion for reconsideration filed by Ressa and Santos was “unmeritorious” and consisted of “mere reiterations” of previous arguments, according to BenarNews.
Ressa’s defense counsel Theodore Te claimed that the court had “ignored basic principles of constitutional and criminal law as well as the evidence presented.” He said he would now “ask the [Supreme Court] to review the decision and to reverse the decision.”
In a statement yesterday, Ressa, who remains free while the appeals play out, said she was disappointed “but sadly not surprised” by the verdict. “This is a reminder of the importance of independent journalism holding power to account,” she said. “Despite these sustained attacks from all sides, we continue to focus on what we do best – journalism.”
Widely considered one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists, Ressa has racked up a long list of accolades for her work at Rappler, which she helped found in 2012, and for her close scrutiny of President Rodrigo Duterte. Like many Philippine media outlets, she was particularly critical of the bloody “war on drugs” that resulted in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of people, and of the surge of disinformation, in many cases engineered by leading politicians, that has distorted the country’s informational landscape.
For this work, she was awarded last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, with the prize committee hailing her as “a fearless defender of the freedom of expression.” Last month, the Clooney Foundation for Justice awarded Ressa its inaugural Albie Award, an honor that recognizes “courageous defenders of justice” whose jobs place them at risk.
Ressa’s work has tied her and Rappler up in a skein of legal battles. In addition to the cyberlibel case, Ressa has faced an additional six legal cases, involving alleged tax offenses and violation of foreign ownership rules, among other things. Meanwhile, just days before Duterte left office in June, the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission ordered Rappler to shut down effective immediately, a decision that the publication has also appealed.
The Philippines has long had a reputation as one of the most dangerous nations in the world for journalists. An estimated 195 journalists have been killed since 1986, the most recent of which was the broadcaster Percival Mabasa, a staunch critic of both Duterte and current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. who was shot and killed earlier this month.
Many of these have been in outlying provinces, where small networks of powerful clans hold effective power through and beyond the electoral cycle, and the situation for the Manila-based national press is generally safer. But the “persecution by prosecution” of Ressa is a sign that independent journalism is also becoming increasingly risky even for those who enjoy the protection of a prominent international profile.