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Appellate court upholds conviction of Ressa, reporter for cyber libel

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The Court of Appeals has turned down the appeal by Nobel laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. seeking reconsideration of their cyber libel conviction.

In a 16-page resolution dated October 10, the CA’s Fourth Division said the motion for reconsideration is “unmeritorious” as the accused-appellants did not present new arguments nor evidence to warrant a reversal of its decision.

The appellate court had upheld the June 15, 2020 decision of the Manila Regional Trial Court convicting Ressa and Santos of cyber libel filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng.

“A careful and meticulous review of the motion for reconsideration reveals that the matter raised by the accused-appellants had already been exhaustively resolved and discussed in the Assailed Decision,” stated the resolution penned by Associate Justice Roberto Quiroz.

CA Associate Justices Ramon Bato Jr. and Germano Francisco Legaspi concurred with the ruling.

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Ressa will appeal the conviction for cyber libel in the country’s highest court, her lawyer said Tuesday, as the veteran journalist battles to stay out of prison.

The move was “disappointing,” her lawyer Ted Te said.

Ressa, 59, and her former colleague Santos Jr face lengthy jail sentences for the conviction, which her news website Rappler has vowed to fight.

The latest appeal rejection, handed down on Monday, “ignored basic principles of constitutional and criminal law as well as the evidence presented,” Te said in a statement.

“Maria and Rey will elevate these issues to the SC (Supreme Court) and we will ask the SC to review the decision and to reverse the decision,” he said.

Ressa has long been a vocal critic of former president Rodrigo Duterte and the deadly drug war he launched in 2016, triggering what media advocates say is a grinding series of criminal charges, probes, and online attacks against her and Rappler.

She and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov were awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to “safeguard freedom of expression”.

Ressa said the latest legal blow was “a reminder of the importance of independent journalism holding power to account”.

“Despite these sustained attacks from all sides, we continue to focus on what we do best -– journalism,” she said in a statement.

Ressa, who is also a US citizen, is fighting seven court cases, including the cyber libel case, for which she has been on bail and faces up to nearly seven years in prison.

The cyber libel law was introduced in 2012, the same year Rappler was founded.

Rappler, which also faces multiple cases, had to fight for survival as Duterte’s government accused it of violating a constitutional ban on foreign ownership in securing funding, as well as tax evasion.

Days before Duterte left office, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission ordered Rappler to shut down for violating “constitutional and statutory restrictions on foreign ownership in mass media”.

Rappler is challenging the decision, and the company’s future is uncertain.

In a recent speech, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said he believed in the “importance of upholding the universal right of free speech and press freedom as well as giving and receiving accurate information.”

In its motion, Ressa and Santos argued that the appellate court erred when it held that cyber libel was not prescribed and that the prescription period for the said offense is 15 years.

This was aside from the court ruling that the criminal proceedings do not constitute an “ex post facto” application of the cybercrime law, and Ressa and Santos said that actual malice was not proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Besides, Ressa argued that the appellate court erred in holding her liable simply based on the prosecution’s allegation that she was the CEO and Executive Editor of Rappler.

The case stemmed from an article written by Santos claiming that Keng allegedly lent his sports utility vehicle to then Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Apart from this, the story also cited an intelligence report that said Keng had been under surveillance by the National Security Council for alleged involvement in human trafficking and drug smuggling.

Keng has denied all the allegations.

The Office of the Solicitor General has maintained that the motion for reconsideration be denied for lack of merit as the matters raised by Ressa and Santos were “merely rehashed from their Brief.”

Though the CA said the accused-appellants did not raise new arguments, it still proceeded to “elaborate and recapitulate” its findings in the assailed decision namely the application of the provisions of cyber libel under the Cybercrime Law, and the offending article should have been classified as qualifiedly privileged, in relation to identifying Keng as a public figure.

The appellate court did not go into the constitutionality of libel and cyber libel, saying that the validity and constitutionality of the Cybercrime Law had already been upheld with finality by the Supreme Court.

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