The Palace said Wednesday it was unhappy over what it described as US interference in the case of journalist Maria Ressa, who was convicted of cyber libel this week, a development that has been widely criticized as a crackdown on press freedom.
On Monday, a Manila court convicted Ressa, chief executive at the online news site Rappler, and her former writer, Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyber libel, a crime that carries jail time of up to six years.
A US State Department spokesperson called for “resolution of the case in a way that reinforces the US and Philippines’ long shared commitment to freedom of expression, including for members of the press.”
Reacting to the statement, Palace spokesman Harry Roque said such interference in the country’s internal affairs would not do any good for the friendship between the United States and the Philippines and was unacceptable because the country’s legal system is working.
“We have a working legal system. The warm friendship between America almost returned, since the President said the VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement) termination would be suspended. But these criticisms are not helping with the Philippines and America’s friendship,” Roque said.
He added: “The President may think that this interference is a judgment that our justice system cannot be trusted and the President will not accept that.”
Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton also slammed the Manila court’s guilty verdict, saying Ressa was convicted “for doing her job.”
Roque insisted that the case of Ressa was not about suppression of press freedom but about accountability because there was no fact-checking made in the allegations hurled against the private businessman who filed the libel suit.
“There is no suppression of the freedom of the press. It was a case of bad journalism, it was a case of bad lawyering,” Roque said on the ABS-CBN news channel.
Despite widespread condemnation of the verdict, Roque said the integrity of the court’s decision should not be questioned.
“You need to read the decision because the poor judge (Estacio-Montesa) cannot defend her decision. The decision speaks for itself. That is her defense,” he said. “Maria Ressa did not lift a finger to prove the absence of malice despite the presumption of malice in law.”
The court’s ruling against Ressa was based on the 2017 cyber libel complaint filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng, who was named by Rappler as the owner of a sports utility vehicle (SUV) used by the late chief justice Renato Corona.
Keng claimed that Rappler, in its May 29, 2012 article, accused him of lending his SUV to Corona who was then subjected to impeachment proceedings.
Roque said Ressa and his legal counsel, Theodore Te, had failed to show proof that there was no malice in Rappler’s 2012 report.
“That’s what the decision said. There was no effort at all to establish that there was no malice and you can only prove there was no malice if you made sure your stories were, in fact, facts and not mere accusations,” he said.
Roque added that it was “natural” for the court to convict Ressa because she failed to fact-check the allegations against Keng.
Malacañang on Tuesday said Ressa could apply for probation to avoid imprisonment.
It also told Ressa that she would lose the privilege of skipping actual jail time, should she chose to appeal.
In a statement, meanwhile, Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin Andanar denounced the “unfounded” and “baseless” allegations linking the President to the conviction of Ressa and Santos.
Andanar said the complainant, businessman Wilfredo Keng, is a private individual and had his own basic human right to seek justice for the supposed unfair news report from the country’s courts.
“With Rappler’s constant refusal and denial of Mr. Keng’s basic human rights on the matter, the latter sought justice and protection of his rights from the Philippines’ independent and impartial courts, which decided that Ms. Ressa and Mr. Santos were guilty,” Andanar said.
Andanar said that saying the President had a hand in her conviction was a “blatant disregard of the fact that the judiciary is separate from the executive branch,” which in turn, showed disrespect for the independence and impartiality of the regional trial court that decided on her case.
He said doing so was also “a denial that people are legally answerable for violating the law, whether that person is a journalist or not.” With PNA