Democracy dies by a thousand cuts

"This is a case of accountability."

When a Philippine court on June 15 convicted journalist Maria Ressa, executive editor of the online news site Rappler, for cyber libel, criticisms from both the local and international fronts were quick and cutting.

A major blow to press freedom. A proof of a broken rule of law. A travesty of justice. This is how democracy dies.

As a former journalist, and finding myself at the office by the Pasig River that was on the receiving end of all the stinging rebuke, it became imperative for me to take a second hard look at the verdict.

Ressa, along with former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr., are the first journalists in the Philippines to be convicted of cyber libel.

In handing out a guilty verdict, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa also awarded $8,000 for moral and exemplary damages to the complainant, businessman Wilfredo Keng, but allowed Ressa and Santos to post bail, pending an appeal.

Critics have zeroed in on two legal issues: the prescription period for cyber libel and the republication of an online news article.

Libel, under the Revised Penal Code, has a prescription period of only a year. And since Rappler's article was published in 2012, and Keng filed his complaint only in 2017, they argue that the case should have been dismissed immediately. The cyber libel provision of the cybercrime law, however, is silent on the prescription period. The Department of Justice then used Republic Act No. 3326 which states that for special laws that are punishable by jail time of six years or more, the prescription period then becomes 12 years.

As to the issue of republication, the article was published on May 29, 2012, and the cybercrime law was only enacted on September 12, 2012. Penal laws cannot be applied retroactively. But in February 2014, Rappler corrected a typographical error -- a misspelled 'evation' to 'evasion’ -- prompting the DOJ to consider it a republication, and is thus now covered by the cybercrime law.

These two issues are within the province of the legislature, and I am not a lawyer. But what bothers me is how media organizations, human rights groups, and even foreign state actors were quick to use these issues to question the verdict, package the conviction as an attack on press freedom, and link the issue to President Rodrigo Duterte.

I must have missed something, because critics are certainly missing the most basic issue at the heart of all these contentious arguments: Were the rights of Wilfredo Keng violated when Rappler published a single-source article that maligned his name and reputation? Was the article in question libelous? And did Rappler adhere to the basic journalism tenets of fairness and balance when it failed to publish Keng's side?

The article claimed that the late former chief justice Renato Corona allegedly used vehicles from various businessmen, including Keng. It cited an alleged intelligence report which stated that Keng had been under surveillance by the National Security Council for alleged involvement in illegal activities, namely "human trafficking and drug smuggling."

Keng has denied the accusations against him. In 2016, the businessman's lawyer, Leonard de Vera, got in touch with Rappler to give them a copy of a certification from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency clearing Keng of any derogatory records.

And in Rappler's own primer on the case, the online news site admitted that it failed to publish Keng's side on the PDEA certification. Rappler said "they needed to countercheck the PDEA certification – a process that they didn't get to finish as Rappler became busy with its coverage of the drug war. It is also SOP for any claim to be verified with other sources before it is published."

This kind of dismissive explanation -- as if being so busy absolves you of bad journalism, and for goodness' sake, what decent newsroom is not busy? -- begs the question: Why didn't Rappler apply the same due diligence in counterchecking Keng's statements clearing his name when it quickly published an alleged intelligence report besmirching Keng's name? Was the SOP only for attacking Keng?

Keng himself raised these valid points: "Where is the violation of press freedom there? They have totally forgotten their duty to uphold the truth. With the power they wield, they have forgotten their accountability."

In defending Maria Ressa, critics of the verdict were silent on these issues. They focused, instead, on big words that painted the case as a "cautionary tale," the decision as a "dark day" for independent Philippine media."

"Don't be afraid. Because if you don't use your rights, you will lose them," Ressa said in a press conference after she was convicted.

She is absolutely right, except perhaps she should have said that with a mirror in front of her. Keng exercised his right. Rappler violated his rights. Thus, the guilty verdict.

Judge Estacio-Montesa, in her ruling, underscored the same. "The exercise of freedom should and must be used with due regard to the freedom of others. As Nelson Mandela said, 'for to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.'"

The unfounded and baseless allegations linking President Duterte to the conviction should not drown out the real issue -- that of Keng's pursuit of justice to protect his own human rights. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech continue to remain vibrant and strong in the Philippines despite how some people choose to paint the decision of the court as a suppression of media freedom. The Duterte administration has constantly been one with the international community in the belief that having a plurality of voices — including critical ones — is an essential requirement for the continued functioning of any democratic country.

The verdict was not an attack on the media, but an adherence to the rule of law and due process prescribed in our democratic constitution. This is a case of accountability.

As for me, I'd like to end this with my own cautionary tale. This is how democracy truly dies -- by a thousand cuts of sloppy reporting that hides behind the shield that is press freedom, by irresponsible journalists who act like they cannot be held accountable, and by the collective and deafening silence of those who should demand ethical reporting from their colleagues.

JV Arcena is Assistant Secretary for Global Media and Public Affairs, Presidential Communications Operations Office.

Topics: Everyman , Maria Ressa , Reynaldo Santos Jr. , Rappler , cyber libel
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