In the same manner that “freedom of the press” is one of the pillars of democracy, the “rule of law” is also an important bedrock of democracy. The conviction of Maria Ressa of Rappler and Reynaldo Santos Jr is not an issue per se of press freedom or the suppression of such freedom, but rather is an issue of “bad journalism and fake news,” and the rule of law.
To note, fake news and bad journalism are the antitheses of media freedom and are threats to the flourishing of democracy in a country. One has to understand that fake news and bad journalism are the “contrivance of duplicity,” and are the complete opposite of legitimate news and the ethical exercise of good journalism.
The story that was the subject of the cyber libel case filed by Wilfredo Keng against Maria Ressa of Rappler and Reynaldo Santos Jr titled, “CJ using SUVs of Controversial Businessman”, “CJ” referring to then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was at the time under an impeachment trial, was a product of misleading content coming from Rappler, an online news site.
The subject of the said article was a businessman named Wilfredo Keng who was described in the said article as a person with a “shady past”, allegedly involved in “illegal activities such as human trafficking, and drug smuggling.” The said story also said Keng was allegedly involved in a “murder case for which he was never jailed.” Furthermore, Keng was also portrayed in that article as being “accused of smuggling fake cigarettes and granting special investors residence visas to Chinese nationals for a fee.”
Keng repudiated all these allegations and pleaded with Rappler to retract the derogatory story about him from their website given that such a depiction of him was false. Along with the sworn statement, Keng submitted some pieces of evidence to the Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 of Manila, which included but not limited to: (a) two letters/certifications from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) dated 15 August 2016, and 20 May 2019, which state that, he has no derogatory records on file with the said government agency as to the drug allegations against him stipulated in the said article, and that he did not violate “Republic Act No. 9165” or the “Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002”; and (b) his National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Clearance dated 17 September, 2019 showing no derogatory records on file.
Hence, these documents proved that Keng had no record of involvement in any illegal activities contrary to the claims of the said article.
Rappler also promised that it would take down the article but never did; rather on 19 February, 2014, it updated the said article and re-published it. Originally the said article was published on 29 May, 2012, and is still on the Rappler website. The refusal of Rappler to retract the article compelled Keng to file a criminal complaint for cyber libel against Santos and Maria Ressa, Rappler’s editor in chief, to clear his name.
Keng said, “My counsel had pleaded and begged with Rappler to correct their false accusations that I am a criminal, or at the very least, to publish my side. They refused. They denied me my right to clear my name. Where else can I go to seek justice and protection but our courts.”
The case then proceeded just like any other case filed in court until that fateful morning of 15 June 2020, when the ruling of RTC Branch 46 of Manila convicted Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr of violating Section 4(c)(4) of Republic Act. No. 10175, otherwise known as the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.” To note, this case was just one of eight active cases filed against Maria Ressa and her media organisation.
Following the verdict, Maria Ressa called a press conferences and was interviewed by various members of the press, where she vowed to fight the court decision. She said, “I appeal to you, the journalists in this room, the Filipinos who are listening, to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. But don't be afraid. Because if you don't use your rights, you will lose them.”
From that time until today, Maria Ressa and the Yellows (supporters of the Liberal Party of the Philippines) have been very vocal in saying that the convictions of Santos Jr. and herself for cyber libel is “suppression of press freedom” by the Duterte administration and that the president is behind the conviction, despite the dearth of evidence linking him to the court ruling.
However, conspiracy theories concocted by her camp and supporters, have once again painted the country both, locally and internationally in a bad light. Such polemical rhetoric has spread across the various social media platforms, creating a controversy and causing a further divide among the Filipino people.
On the contrary, Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, the presiding judge of the case has a differing view to that of Maria Ressa’s and the Yellows.
“There is no curtailment of the Right to Freedom of speech of the press. Each person, journalist or not, has the constitutionally guaranteed right to freely express, write, and make known his opinion. But with the highest ideals in mind, what society expects, is a Responsible Free Press. It is Acting Responsibly that freedom is given its true meaning. The exercise of freedom should and must be used with due regard to the freedom of others,” she said.
Judge Montesa also quoted Nelson Mandela who said, “for to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”.
Hindsight And Retrospection
To set the record straight, the Cybercrime Law, of which Maria Ressa and Santos of Rappler were charged under, was approved on 12 September, 2012, and took effect only on 3 October, 2012 – 15 days after the law was published in the official gazette as required by law. This was during the Aquino administration and not Duterte’s. Contrary to the defense presented by the Maria Ressa and Santos camp, RTC Judge Montesa stressed in her 37-page decision, that the offense was not yet prescribed. This was due to the republishing of the said article on 19 February, 2014.
According to the decision of Judge Montesa, the case in contention was not an ordinary libel and thus provides for a higher and distinct penalty. Hence, cyber libel is considered a more serious offense than ordinary libel, and in that regard, the one-year prescribed period for ordinary libel does not apply.
Second, it was a fact that the person who filed the case is a private individual seeking redress and remedy from the humiliation, dishonour, and embarrassment brought about by the said article to him and his family and not the government. Hence, it is farcical and incongruous for Maria Ressa and the rest of her supporters both, locally and internationally to claim that the current administration is behind her conviction and has something to do with the case.
One has to take cognisance of the fact that the three branches of government in the Philippines namely the executive, legislative, and the judiciary are co-equal branches of government and are independent of each other. Hence, what Maria Ressa and the Yellows are insinuating is a grave insult to the judicial branch of government; flogging and hyping a narrative that the president had influenced the decision of the judge. That in effect only shows no due respect to the independence and capacity of the judiciary to render impartial, fair, and independent judgment on cases that are within their jurisdiction. Such allusions and insinuations are appalling.
Third, the conviction of Maria Ressa and Santos is not about the “suppression of press freedom nor the death of democracy in the Philippines”. That is far from the truth and such a conclusion is far-fetched. The issue is pure and simple. It is cybercrime more specifically cyber libel due to “bad journalism” and “fake news,” and the thriving “rule of law” in the country.
On the other hand, there’s a huge difference between the proper and respectable exercise of press freedom as opposed to its abuse. The moment the exercise of freedom of the press threatens the rights of another being, that freedom becomes restricted. Even the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of the “Social Contract” and famous for his quote, “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”, whose political thoughts played an important role in promoting the notions of “human rights and democracy” acknowledged and recognised that freedoms are not absolute, inexhaustible, and limitless.
Maligning, humiliating, and defaming an individual like in the case of Wilfredo Keng, is a classic example of abuse of media freedom and is tantamount to libel or cyber libel. In the Philippines, libel or cyber libel, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling as explained by Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, is that it, “is not a constitutionally protected speech and that the government should protect private individuals from defamation.”
This just means that no one has the right, the licence, or the freedom to malign and defame anyone. The job of a good and respectable journalist is to report the truth and facts of a particular issue and not to invent erroneous stories devoid of truth and facts. Likewise, it is not the job of a good journalist to defame, slander, and malign people in public or in cyberspace.
In an epoch where fake news is prevailing and widespread, journalists should rise above and fight fake news with legitimate and balanced news reporting and broadcasting. They must accept the challenge of carrying-out well-researched stories done prudently and judiciously. They must own and admit to their mistakes if they have committed any without reservations, because every deliberate transgression, every groundless, prejudiced and biased story is a disservice to the people and country they have sworn to serve.
Likewise, any bad practice of journalism on the part of journalists and any media practitioner will perpetuate a culture of disinformation and fake news to the impairment of well-informed opinions and perspectives of people on any particular issue, which in one or way or the other, hamper the flourishing of a vibrant democracy in the country.
If journalists and the media industry want to be true agents of democracy in the Philippines, they must not only possess a solid ethical core but also have integrity when carrying out their duties. In a democracy like the Philippines, there is no place for fake news, disinformation, and most of all, the exercise of bad journalism.