Nobel laureate Maria Ressa to appeal cyber libel conviction at Supreme Court

Camille Elemia
Nobel laureate Maria Ressa to appeal cyber libel conviction at Supreme Court Rappler CEO Maria Ressa works in her office in Pasig, Metro Manila, July 12, 2022.
Jam Sta Rosa/AFP

Nobel laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and a former staff member said Tuesday they would appeal their cyber libel conviction to the Philippine Supreme Court after an appellate court rejected their second appeal and upheld a previous ruling which extended their prison sentences.

In July, the appellate court had rejected the first appeals of Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. and added eight months to the maximum six-year sentence imposed against them. 

In the ruling dated Oct. 10 and released Tuesday, the three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals said the motion for reconsideration filed by Ressa and Santos was “unmeritorious” and a “mere reiterations” of previously addressed points.  

“A careful and meticulous review of the motion for reconsideration reveals that the matters raised by the accused-appellants had already been exhaustively resolved and discussed in the assailed decision,” said the 16-page ruling drafted by Associate Justice Roberto Quiroz.

But defense lawyer Theodore Te said the decision “ignored basic principles of constitutional and criminal law as well as the evidence presented. 

“Maria and Rey will elevate these issues to the SC and we will ask the SC to review the decision and to reverse the decision,” Te said in a statement, referring to the Supreme Court.

On June 15, 2020, a Manila lower court sentenced Ressa, a critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte, and Santos after finding them guilty of maligning the reputation of Filipino-Chinese businessman Wilfredo Keng.

The case stemmed from a May 2012 report published before the cybercrime law was enacted that exposed a former chief justice’s alleged links to businessmen, including Keng. 

Under Philippine law, cyber libel is a bailable criminal offense, allowing Ressa and Santos to remain free pending the Supreme Court ruling.

‘Press freedom in peril’ 

In its latest ruling, the appeals court said the convictions of Ressa and Santos are not a press freedom issue. Citing an earlier Supreme Court decision, they said the law is meant to “safeguard” free speech. 

“In conclusion, it [is] worthy and relevant to point out that the conviction of the accused-appellants for the crime of cyber libel punishable under the Cybercrime Law is not geared toward the curtailment of the freedom of speech, or to produce an unseemingly chilling effect on the users of cyberspace that would possibly hinder free speech,” the ruling said. 

“We echo the wisdom of the Supreme Court in the Disini case that the purpose of the law is to safeguard the right of free speech, and to curb, if not totally prevent, the reckless and unlawful use of the computer systems as a means of committing the traditional criminal offenses. …” it said.

The 2014 Disini case is considered a landmark in the Philippines as the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Cybercrime Law passed two years earlier.

The defendants said they expected the decision.

“The ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation against me and Rappler continues and the Philippines legal system is not doing enough to stop it. I am disappointed by today’s ruling but sadly not surprised,” Ressa said in a statement Tuesday. 

“This is a reminder of the importance of independent journalism holding power to account. Despite these sustained attacks from all sides, we continue to focus on what we do best – journalism.”

Santos, in a separate statement Tuesday, expressed hope that the rule of law will triumph in the end. 

“The decision to deny our motion is not surprising, but it’s disheartening nevertheless,” Santos said.

“As we elevate our case to the SC, our fight against intimidation and suppression of freedom continues. We still believe that the rule of law will prevail.”

On Tuesday, Philippine human rights group Karapatan said the decision “is another stark proof that press freedom is in peril in the Philippines,” citing the use of libel and cyber libel laws to intimidate journalists along with rampant red-tagging – labeling as communists – of perceived government critics. 

“It is imperative that freedom of expression advocates push back against these successive attacks – killings of journalists, the blocking of websites and non-distribution of scholarly work by those who invoke the terror law, and use of libel/cyber libel laws against journalists,” Karapatan said.


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