MANILA – Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa and her supporters are “blurring the lines” between press freedom and legal obligations by blaming President Rodrigo Duterte for her conviction on a cyber libel case, a Palace official said on Wednesday.
In a statement, Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin Andanar denounced the “unfounded” and “baseless” allegations linking the President to the conviction of Ressa and researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. for cyber libel.
Andanar said the complainant, businessman Wilfredo Keng, is a private individual and had his own basic human right to seek justice for their supposed unfair news report from the country’s “independent” and “impartial” courts.
Keng filed cyber libel charges against Ressa and Santos in 2017 for naming him in a 2012 report as having lent his sports utility vehicle for the use of then chief justice Renato Corona, who was facing impeachment and being under surveillance by the National Security Council for alleged involvement in human trafficking and drug smuggling.
“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,” he said.
Andanar explained 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 pointed out that doing so was also “a denial that people are legally answerable for violating the law, whether that person is a journalist or not.”
“The decision of Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 on the case was not an attack on press freedom nor on freedom of speech, but an adherence to the rule of law and due process prescribed in our democratic constitution,” Andanar said.
He added that their conviction is “a case of accountability” and a product of their “disregard” and “negligence” of Keng’s rights.
“Although Rappler, Ms. Ressa, and their supporters continue to conveniently blur the lines between press freedom and legal obligations, we must all continue to be reminded that we are all bound by the laws of the land and that the exercise of freedom must be used with due regard to the rights and freedom of others,” Andanar said.
On Monday, Estacio-Montesa sentenced Ressa and Santos to imprisonment ranging from six months and one day to six years and ordered them to pay Keng PHP400,000 in moral and exemplary damages.
Opposition lawmakers, media groups, and international organizations have slammed the conviction, describing it as an attack on press freedom.
Rappler, in a statement, also called the guilty verdict as “a dangerous precedent not only for journalists but for everyone online.”