Philippine court finds news site chief Maria Ressa guilty of libel

by Reuters
Monday, 15 June 2020 03:00 GMT

(Adds comment from Ressa, detail)

By Karen Lema

MANILA, June 15 (Reuters) - The head of a Philippine news website known for its tough scrutiny of President Rodrigo Duterte faces up to six years in jail after being found guilty of libel by a Manila court, in what is being seen as a blow to media freedom in the country.

Maria Ressa, chief executive of Rappler (www.rappler.com) and a former CNN journalist, was charged with cyber libel over a 2012 article that linked a businessman to illegal activities.

After handing down Monday's verdict, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa said: "The exercise of a freedom should and must be used with due regard to the freedom of others".

Ressa, a dual U.S. citizen, faced up to six years in jail, the judge said.

"The decision for me is devastating because it essentially says we in Rappler are wrong," said Ressa, who was allowed to post bail pending an appeal.

Reynaldo Santos, a former Rappler researcher and writer, was also found guilty in the case.

"This is a dark day not only for independent Philippine media but for all Filipinos. The verdict basically kills freedom of speech and of the press," the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said in a comment posted on social media.

Businessman Wilfredo Keng featured in a 2012 Rappler story, updated in 2014, linking him to illegal activities, citing information contained in an intelligence report from an unspecified agency.

In his complaint, Keng said the Rappler story included "malicious imputations of crimes, vices and defects."

The cyber libel case is among numerous lawsuits filed against Ressa and Rappler that have drawn global concern about a free and open media in the Southeast Asian country.

Rappler's operating licence was rescinded in 2018 over alleged foreign ownership violations, and it is also dealing with a case involving alleged tax evasion. Both cases are ongoing.

Media watchdogs have said the charges against Ressa were aimed at intimidating critics of Duterte.

Rappler has questioned the accuracy of Duterte's public statements and scrutinised his war on drugs and his foreign policies. Duterte has lashed out at the news site in several public speeches. (Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Ed Davies and Stephen Coates)

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