Maria Ressa

A verdict against the right to know

Unless reversed by a higher court, the conviction for cyber libel of Rappler’s Maria Ressa and its former researcher Reynaldo Santos, Jr. will further shrink not only the democratic space for free expression and press freedom but also the people’s right to be informed on matters relevant to their lives as citizens and as human beings. 

An information crisis has long frustrated the realization of that right. It is not a recent development and has been part of the Philippine reality for decades despite the heroic efforts of responsible journalists and media organizations to accurately report  what is happening in this rumored democracy, and to provide the analyses needed so it may be understood. 

Vast segments of the Philippine population are either without the information they need to make the decisions on public issues worthy of a free people, or are burdened by the deadweight of mis- and disinformation. What is worse is that the problem is growing due to the threats and harassments, the persecution and the killing of journalists as well as ordinary folk who express their views on public issues through such means as protests and demonstrations as well as social media posts.

Despite their liberating potential, however, the latter have also become part of the problem. It is not only because of the bought-and-paid-for trolls and hate mongers; too many Netizens also unknowingly share false and harmful information.  But the epidemic of ignorance and sub-literacy in online blogs and on Facebook and Twitter is only one indicator that there is a crisis in information that makes fact-based discourse on even the most important public issues limited to only a few and rare among the many. 

Also in evidence are the findings of the public opinion polling firms, in which most of the respondents habitually rate as “very good” some of the worst politicians on the planet. The majority also glowingly approve of such currently problematic institutions as the Senate, the  House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, while they rate as poor those few officials who, despite political persecution and limited resources, are  trying their best to do the tasks they have  been elected for. 

And then there are the appalling results of this country’s elections. These exercises are decided not by the dominant political blocs’ platforms — they don’t have any — or by a candidate’s track record but by money, intimidation, bribery, and warlord command votes. Regarded by many as only benignly idiotic, equally subversive of democratic governance is the electorate’s perennial habit of electing to office clowns, imbeciles, and even mass murderers on the basis of how well they sing and dance on stage, and by how much their bad jokes during the circuses they call political rallies match the sexism, machismo and bloodlust of their benighted audiences.

Already thus denied reliable intelligence on some of the most crucial issues that should concern them because of their impact on their lives, the citizens of this country are  likely to be further swamped by a tidal wave of false information that will make rational and democratic discourse even more impossible.

That is likely to be the most frightening and most destructive consequence of the conviction of Ressa and Santos.

The verdict convicting and sentencing them to a six-month to six-year prison term on the basis of a news report Rappler published before the 2012 Cyber Crime Prevention Act was passed in effect accepts the argument that online libel is a continuing offense. 

The court thereby virtually declared the Act an expost facto law, which punishes an offense prior to the passage of any bill making it illegal that the Constitution explicitly prohibits. The verdict also validates the government’s extending the application of the statute of limitations on the Act to 12 years.

Anyone who uses the Internet or any other means of computer-based communication can thus be sued for libel or any other offense named in the Act even if the alleged offense was committed 12 years earlier or before the Act was passed. If convicted they can be imprisoned for as long as ten years. It can also lead to the passing of other laws of retroactive application, under the terms of which an act committed before it became illegal can still be subject to prosecution.

By terrorizing the media into silence the verdict if upheld will further constrict their capacity to discharge their fundamental responsibility of monitoring and holding government to account and disseminating their findings and views to the public they are mandated to serve. It is the worst attack so far on the very foundations of the free, responsible and engaged journalism that the citizens of this alleged democracy need to be informed about and to understand the issues that concern them.

Regardless of their personal, political, business and other interests, in the face of the Ressa and Santos conviction for cyber libel, every journalist and media organization, as well as human rights defenders, civil society groups and communication academics must ramp up their support for press freedom, free expression and the Filipino people’s inalienable right to information.

Rappler’s cause is the entire media community’s own, and it must continue to push the envelope in the exercise of its Constitutionally-protected mandate to report the truth in the furtherance not only of everyone’s right to know, but also in the defense of the human right to free expression.

Some of this is already happening, but there is now greater urgency in strengthening media and civil society solidarity.  Without it the verdict on Ressa and Santos is likely to instill fear among many journalists, civil society and cause-oriented groups and ordinary folk because of the message it is sending that every truth-teller in this digital age is at risk of imprisonment not only under the terms of the 88-year-old libel law criminalizing libel committed in print, but also those of the 2012 Cyber Crime Prevention Act. 

Never since the Marcos martial law regime has the threat to free expression and the right of the press to probe into and report matters of public concern been as pronounced as today. The verdict on Ressa and Santos may have occurred in the context of the continuing assaults on and harassment not only of journalists but also reformers, dissenters, political activists and human rights defenders. But the impact of the verdict is unprecedented for the extent to which it will undermine the essential task of truth-telling.

The legal community, civil society, academics, the media and the mass organizations must  closely follow the conduct and progress of Rappler’s appeal and to rigorously report on it to the public and their constituencies to make sure and to insist that due process and  the rule of law are observed. At stake is nothing less than everyone’s right to the dissemination and acquisition of the information they need to make sense of what’s going on around them, hence the urgency of mobilizing in the defense of those rights every Filipino who values the truth.

The usual suspects who despise truth-tellers dismiss protests against the Rappler verdict as just another instance of media self-interest. They are wrong. The issue is not just about press freedom and free expression. It is also about everyone.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Image is a detail from a June 7, 2016 PCOO of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa interviewing then President Benigno Aquino III at the Music Room of Malacanan Palace.

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