By Macon Araneta

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and a former researcher, were convicted of cyber libel charges in the first court decision in a string of criminal cases filed against the on-line news site.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said critics of the administration will likely use the conviction  to portray Duterte as an enemy of press freedom.

He also said Duterte has never filed libel cases against anyone and that the President is a supporter of press freedom and freedom of expression. 

The Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 found Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. guilty of cyber libel on June 15 and sentenced them to six months and one day to up to six years in jail.

The two remain free after being granted post-conviction bail, in a high-profile verdict handed down at the time the Duterte administration has been targeting those critical of the government.

The court ruled that Rappler, as a company, was declared to have no liability.

Rappler and Ressa also face separate charges for alleged tax evasion and violation of the anti-dummy law, cases that the veteran journalist called acts of harassment against the news site.

The court allowed bail under the same bond. The court ordered payment of PHP200,000 in moral damages and another PHP200,000 in exemplary damages.

RTC Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa ruled that only Ressa and Santos are guilty of cyber libel charges. The charges were filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng in a case that tested the eight-year-old Philippine Cybercrime Law.

The case stemmed from a story by the news site in 2012 that cites an “intelligence report” which allegedly linked Keng to human trafficking and drug smuggling.

Later at a press conference, Ressa said her conviction of cyber libel is a “pivotal moment” for democracy and a free press.

“This is a pivotal moment for the Philippines and a pivotal moment not just for our democracy but for the idea of what a free press means,” Ressa said shortly after a judge in Manila handed down the verdict.

“I think we’re re-defining what the new world is gonna look like, what journalism is going to become. Are we going to lose freedom of the press, will it be death by a thousand cuts, or are we going to hold the line so that we protect the rights that are enshrined in the Constitution even if power attacks you directly,” Ressa said.

In a statement issued moments after the judgment, Rappler described the guilty verdict on Ressa and Santos as a “failure of justice and democracy” that “sets a dangerous precedent not only for journalists but for everyone on-line.”

“Today marks diminished freedom and more threats to democratic rights supposedly guaranteed by the Philippine Constitution, especially in the context of looming anti-terrorism law,” it said on Twitter.

Montesa handed down the ruling after less than a year of trial. The execution of judgment was initially scheduled for April.

“There is no curtailment of the right to freedom of speech and of the press,” the Judge said in the ruling.

Rappler’s lawyers, the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), argued before the court that the “multiple republication” principle does not apply to on-line media. They also said the change made to the story in 2014 was merely a “spelling correction.”

FLAG said both Ressa and Santos had “no participation” in the alleged re-publishing. The lawyers further argued that no evidence was shown to indicate that Rappler, Inc., a corporate entity, could be made liable under the charge.

In the 37-page ruling, however, the Judge said the prosecution was able to establish the presence of all elements of cyber libel, including “actual malice,” as she found that the story was “re-published with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

The court said Keng did not immediately file a complaint against Rappler but instead initially reached out to demand the news site to publish his side of the story. The court said Rappler ended up not publishing a clarifying story.

The court said the defendants did not verify the veracity of the reports. It also pointed out that neither Ressa nor Santos took the witness stand.

In addition, the court found Ressa, who is Rappler’s “executive editor,” liable despite claims by the defense that she does not edit stories.

The court said it was a “clever ruse” for Rappler not to call Ressa its “editor-in-chief” “to avoid liability of the officers of a news organization” for libel.

Meanwhile, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said due process does not end with a guilty verdict rendered by a regional trial court under the judicial system. 

He said  Ressa and Santos can always appeal the decision before the appellate court and the Supreme Court, if necessary.  He said this is a guaranteed right of every Filipino under existing laws.