By Lian Buan in Manila
Rappler chief executive and executive editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos have been convicted today over cyber libel charges in a high-profile verdict.
Rappler as a company was declared to have no liability.
The court allowed bail under the same bond. They have each been ordered to pay P200,000 (NZ$6200) in moral damages and another P200,000 in exemplary damages. Once the conviction becomes final, they will each have to pay P400,000 (NZ$12,400) in damages.
Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 ruled that only Ressa and Santos were guilty of cyber libel charges.
The court sentenced Ressa and Santos to 6 months and 1 day to up to 6 years in jail over charges filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng in a case that tested the 8-year-old Philippine Cybercrime Law.
Ressa and Santos will not have to go to jail because the conviction can be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
Ressa and Santos are entitled to post-conviction bail while they exhaust legal remedies in higher courts.
Verdict handed down in person
The verdict was handed down in person during the coronavirus pandemic, when the small courtroom of Branch 46 accommodated only the defendants, the complainant, one lawyer from each of the firms representing them, and three reporters.
Keng earlier demanded P50 million (NZ$1.5 million) in damages from the embattled news organisation, which is also facing a shutdown order from the government over its Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs).
Ressa faces 7 other charges before the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA), and Pasig Regional Trial Court (RTC), stemming from the mother case over the company’s PDRs, which the Court of Appeals (CA) has ruled to be already cured.
The CA has remanded the shutdown order to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for review.
Ressa’s and Santos’ cyber libel case stemmed from the latter’s May 2012 article on the late former Chief Justice Renato Corona’s links to businessmen, including Keng.
Keng disputed parts of the article that quoted an intelligence report linking him to drugs and human trafficking.
Keng filed the complaint in 2017 or 5 years later, beyond the more typical one-year prescription period for libel under the Revised Penal Code. But because the cybercrime law is silent on the prescription period for cyber libel, the Department of Justice found an obscure law – Republic Act 3326 – to extend libel’s prescription period from one year to 12 years.
There was also a question of whether the cybercrime law could apply because it was enacted into law only in September 2012, or four months after the publication of the article.
But the DOJ ruled that because the article reflected updates at a later date when the cybercrime law was already enacted, the law would apply. The updates corrected previously missed typographical errors.
The Pacific Media Centre republishes Rappler articles with permission.