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Philippines' court finds journalist Maria Ressa guilty of libel

Verdict draws criticism from press freedom and human rights advocates

Maria Ressa, executive editor and CEO of Rappler, arrives at the Manila Regional Trial Court on June 15.   © Reuters

MANILA -- A Philippine court on Monday found embattled journalist Maria Ressa, founder of a website critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, guilty of libel in a high-profile case that comes amid concerns over press freedom in the country.

Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, who wrote a story that a businessman slammed as defamatory, were sentenced by a Manila court to between six months and six years of imprisonment. Both have been allowed to post bail and can appeal the ruling within 15 days.

Speaking to reporters after the verdict, Ressa said the decision was "devastating."

"We will keep fighting. This is a blow to us, but this is also not unexpected," Ressa said, pointing to other cases that have been filed against her and her news organization Rappler over the last few years.

"This is a dark day, not only for independent Philippine media but for all Filipinos. The verdict basically kills freedom of speech and of the press. But we will not be cowed," the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said in a statement.

"We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms."

International human rights groups also criticized the decision.

"The verdict against Maria Ressa highlights the ability of the Philippines' abusive leader to manipulate the laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices whatever the ultimate cost to the country," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Rappler case will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom."

The case, filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng in 2017, stemmed from an article published by Rappler in 2012, linking Keng with the late-ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona.

The story, citing an intelligence report, said that Keng was under surveillance by the National Security Council for alleged involvement in illegal activities -- human trafficking and drug smuggling -- and was also involved in a murder case. Keng, who has businesses in the Philippines and China, denies the allegations and says the story damaged his reputation.

The story was published months before the passage of a cybercrime law that covers online libel. Keng's camp says the story was "republished" in 2014, but Rappler says it merely corrected a typographical error -- "evation" was edited to "evasion."

Keng's case was also strengthened by the Department of Justice, which said journalists and news organizations could be sued for cyber libel within 12 years of publication of a story.

Ressa, an internationally acclaimed journalist, and Rappler are dealing with a handful of other charges related to alleged tax evasion and a law that bars foreign ownership in a mass media outlet.

The site, which has extensively reported on the irregularities in President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war, has been previously branded a "fake news outlet" by the president.

Ressa's case comes amid the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the country's largest broadcaster, whose 25-year license expired last month. Duterte has previously threatened to block the TV network's franchise renewal.

Ressa urged Filipinos to guard their rights, citing the closure of ABS-CBN and the government's push for a controversial anti-terrorism bill, which would allow authorities to carry out warrantless arrests.

"This verdict has an impact on press freedom, not just in the Philippines but I think all around the world, definitely," Ressa said shortly before the decision was declared. "The quality of our democracy is at stake."

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