Media watchdogs slam 16 new legal complaints against Ressa, Rappler

Nobel Peace laureate Maria Ressa
Nobel Peace laureate Maria Ressa testifies on "The Assault on Freedom of Expression in Asia" during a US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Image: RSF/Saul Loeb/AFP​

Pacific Media Watch newsdesk

Ahead of national elections in the Philippines next month, the state has stepped up its attacks on Nobel Peave laureate Maria Ressa and the news outlet she leads, Rappler, reports the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders global media watchdog.

“This dramatic escalation in the legal harassment of Maria Ressa and Rappler highlights the urgent need for the Philippines’ to decriminalise libel and do away with laws that are repeatedly abused to persecute journalists whose reporting exposes public wrongdoing,” said the Hold the Line Coalition Steering Committee.

“The state’s blatant attempts to suppress Rappler’s election-related fact-checking services is an unacceptable attempt to cheat the public of their right to accurate information, which is critical during elections.”

The Philippines president election is on May 9.

Fourteen new cyber libel complaints have been made against Rappler in recent weeks, naming several journalists and their sources in connection with reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s pastor Apollo Quiboloy, who is on the FBI’s “most wanted” list, and eight of his followers.

Quiboloy and his associates were charged with conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion; sex trafficking of children; marriage fraud; fraud, and misuse of visas; and various money laundering offences.

Quiboloy’s company Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), which has attacked independent journalists and news outlets reporting critically on the Duterte administration, was recently granted a TV licence by the government.

However, Rappler reports today that a panel of prosecutors in Manila has thrown out seven cyber libel complaints filed against Rappler Incorporated, four journalists, an academic, and three former members of Quiboloy’s Davao-based Kingdom of Jesus Christ (KOJC) in connection with a series of news reports and interviews about the influential doomsday preacher.

In addition to these cases, Ressa has been named personally as one of 17 reporters, editors and executives, and seven news organisations in cyber libel complaints brought by Duterte government cabinet minister Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi.

Legal harassment
He alleges Ressa and the other named individuals and organisations “publicly accused [him] of graft” by reporting on a graft suit filed against him and a businessman.

Cusi is demanding each of the accused pay him 200 million pesos (nearly US$4 million) in damages.

Ressa did not write the article published by Rappler.

If the authorities choose to prosecute these cases, they will become criminal charges with potentially heavy jail sentences attached.

Having already been convicted of one criminal cyber libel charge, which is under appeal, and facing multiple other pre-existing legal cases, Ressa testified before the US Senate last week about the state-enabled legal harassment she experiences:

“All told, I could go to jail for the rest of my life. Because I refuse to stop doing my job as a journalist. Because Rappler holds the line and continues to protect the public sphere.”

In parallel, Rappler is facing another legal challenge, with the Philippines’ Solicitor-General petitioning the Supreme Court to void Rappler’s fact-checking agreement with the Commission of Elections (COMELEC).

Countering disinformation
As a result, this collaboration between Rappler and COMELEC designed to counter disinformation associated with the presidential poll has been temporarily halted — just over a month from the election.

“This new wave of cases and complaints, which represents an egregious attack on press freedom, is designed to undermine the essential work of fact-checking and critical reporting during elections — acts which help uphold the integrity of democratic processes.

Rappler must be allowed to perform the essential public service of exposing falsehoods, particularly during the election period, even when these prove politically damaging for those in power,” the coalition said.

The Philippines is ranked 138th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

Statement by Julie Posetti (ICFJ), Gypsy Guillén Kaiser (CPJ), and Daniel Bastard (RSF) on behalf of the Hold the Line Coalition.

  • The #HTL Coalition comprises more than 80 organisations around the world. This statement is issued by the #HoldTheLine Steering Committee, but it does not necessarily reflect the position of all or any individual coalition members or organisations.
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