Embattled Philippine journalist Maria Ressa is facing a new cyber-libel complaint over a 2019 tweet of a newspaper story claiming that a Filipino businessman was involved in illegal drugs, court documents showed Friday.
Wilfredo Keng, who on Monday won a separate cyber-libel case against Ressa, filed this new complaint in February but it was not made public then. This time, Keng wants Ressa to be jailed over a tweet she posted in February last year.
“In publishing the 2002 Philippine Star article on her Twitter account, the respondent has feloniously communicated the malicious imputation against me not only to her 350,000 Twitter followers, but to anyone who has access to the internet,” Keng’s 11-page complaint read.
Ressa, the CEO and executive editor of the online news site Rappler, and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. on Monday became the first journalists to be found guilty of cyber libel in the Philippines. Their convictions, which could carry sentences of six months to as much as six years, can be appealed.
Ressa’s tweet cited by Keng was a screenshot of 2002 news article, which named him as an alleged suspect in the death of a government official in Manila.
In filing the new complaint, Keng said “the two articles will also show that they have the same purpose: that of destroying my reputation.”
The 2002 Philippine Star article was taken down in 2019 after “Keng raised the possibility of legal action.”
The Star said it wanted to be prudent because the scope of cyber libel law in the Philippines – the legal basis used to convict Ressa and Santos – was unexplored.
Meanwhile, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the new case could have far-reaching consequences against the nation’s media.
“We fear this complaint, if the state further perverts the law, could spell doom for freedom of expression online,” the NUJP said. “To our colleagues in the community of independent journalists, let us remain vigilant and continue to resist all attempts to intimidate and silence us.”
The new case adds to a list of criminal complaints filed against Ressa and Rappler since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016. Ressa is facing at least two more libel cases, while Rappler faces at least 11 complaints including a closure order.
Ressa’s lawyer, Ted Te, said his team was preparing to reply to the suit but he was not sure when it could be filed. The city hall complex where the case is being heard is under a lockdown order after two employees apparently were exposed to COVID-19.
“I’m sure the media will be informed when that will be and will be given copies as soon as (we) file her counter affidavit,” Te said.
On June 15, a Manila court convicted Ressa and Santos based on a complaint that Keng filed in 2017 with the National Bureau of Investigation regarding a 2012 Rappler report.
The report had said Keng owned a vehicle seen being used at the time by the then-chief justice of the Philippines Supreme Court. The report also described Keng as having connections to the criminal underworld.
Earlier this week, Keng said he filed that complaint to protect his good name. He said the court’s decision brought vindication even as he claimed that “Rappler’s lies still resound after the bang of the gavel has faded away.
“Ressa portrays herself as an alleged defender of press freedom and as a purported target of the Philippine government, but this in no way exempts her from respecting and following Philippine laws,” Keng said.
Duterte’s administration denied that the case was an attack on press freedom. Spokesman Martin Andanar called it a case of accountability.
“The Duterte administration has constantly been one with the United States and the international community toward upholding and valuing our long-shared commitments to freedoms of the press and speech,” Andanar said on Wednesday, stressing that the government valued a “plurality of voices” including critical ones.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.