StreetTalk – The Maria Ressa Case: When in a war zone, watch out for mine fields

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By Greg B. Macabenta

My dear departed friend Alex Esclamado, publisher and editor of Philippine News, had a practical advice for members of his editorial and reportorial staff: “If you are not 100% sure of your facts, use the modifier ‘alleged.’ It allows you a way out of a libel case.” However, he would add that there was no substitute for truth, accuracy and proof to back up a news story.

Alex used the Philippine News, a weekly and the only nationally circulated Filipino newspaper in the US at the time, to wage an unrelenting campaign against the martial law regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, He was offered several million dollars to stop the attacks, but he and his family decided that their journalistic integrity was worth much more than money.

Unfortunately, advertisers were “persuaded” to stop supporting the paper. Thus, Alex had to borrow money from everyone in sight to keep on publishing. Remarkably, Philippine News did not miss a single issue until Marcos was deposed.

For his courage, Alex was conferred the Philippine Legion of Honor by President Corazon Aquino, after the People Power revolution. However, the Esclamados found themselves deep in debt.

Having known Alex, I can appreciate the courage and zeal of Maria Ressa, editor and CEO of the online news medium, Rappler.  Ressa and a researcher-writer, Reynaldo Santos, Jr., have just been found guilty of cyber libel by a Manila court. Ressa also faces other charges, including alleged tax evasion and alleged violation of the Constitutional prohibition against foreign ownership of Philippine news media.

Notice how I have studiously used the term “alleged” – you see, what I know about the case is what I have heard and read in the news, and from my own research.

Ressa believes that they are being persecuted, rather than prosecuted, for Rappler’s reports on the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, particularly his bloody war on drugs (some estimates have placed the death toll at over 20,000).

For sure, the “drug war” stories have been gruesome, particularly the allegations of extra-judicial killings. Human rights activists around the world have condemned Duterte for these killings and have threatened charges of genocide. That could hound Duterte after he vacates the presidency.

Ressa has remained stoical and appears ready to face whatever the fates may bring. For her courage, Ressa was named Time Magazine Person of the Year for 2018 and has been extolled in the international media. This has also meant a bad image for Duterte and the Philippines.

But Duterte’s spokesmen have denied any hand in the cyber libel verdict, pointing out that it is not about Rappler’sreports on the government’s drug war, but for a news item that came out on May 29, 2012 by-lined by Reynaldo Santos, Jr.  The story was headlined, “CJ using SUVs of controversial’ businessmen” It was about then Chief Justice Renato Corona who was facing an impeachment trial in the Senate.

The news item stated: “MANILA, Philippines – Even as the Corona impeachment trial comes to a close, controversy continues to hound the Chief Justice. He appears to have a penchant for using vehicles registered under the names of controversial personalities.

“His black Chevrolet Suburban, a sports utility vehicle he used to travel to and from the Senate – when he appeared on May 22 and 25 before the impeachment court – is being linked to questionable transactions and persons.”

Manila Times columnist, Rigoberto Tiglao, who has not been shy about his defense of the Duterte administration, wrote the following commentary, excerpts of which read:

“IT is quite despicable that Maria Ressa and her Yellow crowd have been shouting to the world that her criminal conviction for libel for a Rappler article was suppression of the press…

“The complainant is not Duterte or the Philippine government but a Filipino-Chinese businessman, Wilfredo Keng…

“The target of the May 29, 2012 libelous article written by one Reynaldo Santos Jr. was not really businessman Wilfredo Keng, who filed and won the libel case against him and Ressa…

“As is obvious from the article’s title itself…its aim was to smear Corona’s integrity, suggesting that Keng was Corona’s crony, who the article claimed was ‘under surveillance by the National Security Council for alleged involvement in illegal activities, namely human trafficking and drug smuggling…’

”Keng was also accused of ‘smuggling fake cigarettes and granting special investors residence to Chinese nationals,’ the article claimed.

“Although the low-profile Keng isn’t known even to most media members, he was listed by Forbes magazine as the 23nd (sic) richest Filipino in 2010 with a net worth of $100 million… Now do you understand why Keng was so angry at the article that he pursued his libel case? What’s the use of your money if some media would destroy your reputation in such a cavalier manner?”

.Pundits think that Ressa has, in fact, been given the “Al Capone Treatment” – also referred to as “Gotcha!” The Chicago mobster was arrested and imprisoned for tax evasion rather than for the many crimes, including multiple murder, that the FBI had long tried but failed to pin him down for. The tax case was what got Capone.

Gotcha!

There are technical legal issues surrounding the cyber libel case, such as the claim of Ressa’s defense that the law had not yet been passed at the time the story came out. The prosecution, on the other hand, points out that the story was published again in 2014 when the cyber crime law was already in effect.

While I cannot claim to know enough about that law, I did notice that the Rappler story used definitive, accusatory language, citing intelligence reports. That, understandably, had to be proven in court. Eventually, the court decided that Rappler “did not offer a scintilla of proof” in the allegations against Keng and that it was not enough to quote an intelligence report.

The Philippines is considered among the most hazardous for media, a virtual war zone. For this reason, crusading journalists like Maria Ressa should remember this piece of advice: In a war zone, watch out for mine fields. As Alex Esclamado would have put it, use the modifier “allege.” But there is no substitute for truth, accuracy and proof.

The cyber libel conviction carries with it a jail term of up to six years, although I understand that it is still subject to elevation to the Court of Appeals and, perhaps, the Supreme Court.

I recall two other Philippine journalists who were judged guilty by a court for libel.  Philippine Star’s Louie Beltran and Max Soliven. The complainant was President Cory Aquino herself. She charged the two for falsely reporting that she had hidden under her bed during one of the coup attempts against her government. The Supreme Court subsequently overturned the verdict.

Hopefully, Duterte’s term of office will have expired, before a final judgment is made, and that a more sympathetic administration will not object if the higher courts overturn the guilty verdict – just like the case of Beltran and Soliven.

(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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