Philippine Court Drops another Libel Case against Rappler Editor Maria Ressa

J.C. Gotinga
Manila
2021-08-12
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Philippine Court Drops another Libel Case against Rappler Editor Maria Ressa Maria Ressa, chief executive of the online Philippine news site Rappler, walks out of the Court of Tax Appeals in Quezon City after attending a hearing involving a case against her on charges of tax evasion, Sept. 21, 2020.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

A Philippine court has dismissed a cyber-libel case against Maria Ressa, chief editor of the embattled online news outlet Rappler, and one of its reporters after the plaintiff withdrew his lawsuit, their lawyer said Thursday.

The case was the last of three cyber-libel cases and the second to be dismissed against Ressa, but she faces a slew of other Philippine court cases. Rappler has built a reputation for its hard-hitting coverage of the government’s policies, particularly the Duterte administration’s war on illegal drugs.

The cases leveled against Rappler are widely viewed as a litmus test for the future of press freedom in the Philippines.

Ariel Pineda, formerly a professor at Manila’s College of Saint Benilde, was the plaintiff in the libel case against Ressa and Rappler reporter Rambo Talabong that was dismissed on Tuesday, said Theodore Te, the attorney representing the respondents.

Pineda sued the pair over a Rappler report which, he said, had unfairly reported allegations that he took money from students in exchange for giving then passing marks on their theses.

“The Regional Trial Court of Manila, Branch 24 issued an order in open session last Aug. 10 dismissing the case with prejudice against Rambo Talabong and Maria Ressa after the complainant … submitted an affidavit of desistance, which he affirmed in open court,” Te said in a statement to journalists.

“Mr. Pineda stated that the filing of the case arose out of a misappreciation of facts and that he was no longer interested in pursuing the case against both Mr. Talabong and Ms. Ressa.”

Suit filed in December 2020

Pineda sued the two for cyber libel in December 2020, claiming the report was “false, malicious, and derogatory.”

The school probed the allegations against Pineda, but later cleared him of any wrongdoing. 

Talabong had earlier said Pineda did not respond to his queries when he was working on the story, and that he informed the professor before Rappler ran the report.

To resolve the case, Pineda and the journalists agreed to “update the story with information that was obtained after the case was filed,” Te said Thursday.

Lawyers for Pineda were not immediately available for comment Thursday, and neither were court officials.

Last year, Ressa was convicted in the first cyber-libel case brought against her. She is out on bail as she appeals the verdict.

If her appeal fails, Ressa could go to prison along with former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. The case stemmed from a report that was published even before the Philippines passed its cyber-libel law.

Rights groups and media advocates have accused President Rodrigo Duterte’s government of using libel and cyber libel laws to suppress free speech.

“That the case was even filed against both Mr. Talabong and Ms. Ressa at the level of the investigating prosecutor … spotlights the danger to press freedom and freedom of expression that criminal cyber libel poses,” Te said.

A second cyber-libel case against Ressa was dismissed in June 2021 after her accuser withdrew the charges.

On Thursday, the Rappler journalists welcomed the latest dismissal and called for the decriminalization of libel, particularly cyber libel. They said the law was being used as a weapon to discourage critical reporting.

“Another criminal case against me and our reporter has been dropped. It’s a temporary relief, but the ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation against me and Rappler continues,” Ressa said in a statement on Thursday.

“These ridiculous cases remind us all of the importance of independent journalism holding power to account. Now we at Rappler can focus on what we do best – journalism,” she said.

Ressa faces seven other active court cases involving Rappler’s funding structure and its alleged tax arrears. The independent news company insists that all its funding is legal and above-board, and it is current with its taxes.

“Two down, seven to go. The cases against Maria have been piling up for years, each one as baseless as the other. It is a vindication to see a Philippine court dismiss this latest libel case with prejudice, and by doing so restore faith in the rule of law,” said attorney Amal Clooney, who is part of Ressa’s international legal team.

“Let’s hope that this sets a precedent for judges protecting freedom of the press in other cases as well,” she said.

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