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Politics

Facing jail, Philippine journalist will welcome backing from Tokyo

Maria Ressa: 'Your support has helped me stay out of prison'

Maria Ressa said Monday she would welcome backing from the Japanese government, days after being convicted of libel. (Screenshot from FCCJ's Vimeo page)

MANILA -- Internationally acclaimed journalist Maria Ressa, a prominent critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, said Monday she would welcome backing from the Japanese government after she was convicted of "cyber libel."

Ressa, who heads Philippine news website Rappler, and a former colleague, Reynaldo Santos, are facing up to six years in prison after a Manila court last week found the two guilty of libel.

The U.S. State Department said it was "concerned" with the verdict, and called for the "resolution of the case in a way that reinforces the U.S. and Philippines' long shared commitment to freedom of expression, including for members of the press."

Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and foreign press clubs have also condemned the court's decision as a blow to free speech.

Asked during a teleconference with the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan if she would welcome political support from Tokyo, Manila's key economic partner, Ressa said: "Yes, absolutely. But you know, I wonder... if me saying that could even be grounds for the government to file another case against me."

"Let me say it this way: Thank you for your support. I feel like we are fighting for basic rights enshrined in our constitution," Ressa said. "I am nothing but a journalist -- my track record shows that. Rappler holds power to account and that is the reason we've been singled out."

Apart from the libel verdict, which she plans to appeal, Ressa is also battling other legal cases, including alleged tax evasion and violation of a rule that bars foreign ownership of mass media in Philippines.

Rappler has reported extensively on Duterte's brutal drug war and online disinformation campaign, which Ressa believes drew the government's ire.

But the libel case was filed in 2017 by businessman Wilfredo Keng over a 2012 story that alleged he was under surveillance by the National Security Council for his involvement in illegal activities -- namely, human trafficking and drug smuggling -- and a murder case. Keng denied those allegations.

The story was published months before a cybercrime law was passed, but was republished in 2014 to correct a typographical error. The court ruled that cyber libel has a 12-year prescription period, affirming the Department of Justice's position.

On June 19, just days after Ressa's conviction, Rappler reported that Keng filed a second libel complaint against Ressa for a tweet she wrote in February last year.

Duterte's spokesperson Harry Roque denied that free speech was being stifled, pointing to the fact that Ressa's case was brought by a private individual.

Ressa said she was overwhelmed by the support Rappler has received following the court decision.

"Your support has helped me stay out of prison, I guess, and certainly if I wind up going to prison, please help. I've had to embrace my fear in order to keep going because I feel like there is so much at stake for Filipinos," she said, adding that Rappler has started a crowdfunding campaign for legal fees.

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