Keng camp tries to pin down Maria Ressa in Rappler cyber libel case

MANILA, Philippines – "Does the buck stop with her?" was a question asked by prosecution counsel Ryan Cruz on Monday, December 16, referring to Rappler CEO Maria Ressa as the cyberlibel trial winds down at the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC).

Cruz asked it during his cross-examination of Rappler investigative head Chay Hofileña, who explained Ressa is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the Rappler newsroom, and who has very minimal involvement in publishing stories.

Ressa is the main respondent in the cyberlibel case filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng over a 2012 article written by former Rappler researcher-writer Rey Santos Jr. The story was about the late former chief justice Renato Corona, and his links to businessmen including Keng.

Before Hofileña could answer, Rappler lawyer Ted Te objected saying that the question would "cast a broad net."

"Would she have the prerogative to remove an article?" Cruz rephrased his question.

"Not necessarily. Sometimes she gets vetoed  by other senior editors. We are a democratic organization," said Hofileña.

After the hearing, Cruz told reporters: "That's for the judge to sustain or to deny the responsibility of Ms. Maria Ressa, what our job there was to establish the truth, and from what we established earlier, she's the top executive officer of Rappler and she has extensive decision-making powers."

Hofileña explained to the court that unlike broadsheets, Rappler does not have an editor-in-chief, and editorial decisions are made in consultations among senior editors.

"If they were intent on pinning down Maria and proving she's accountable and the buck stops with her, why didn't they ask me whether she had anything to do with the story, because my answer would have been a resounding no," said Hofileña after the hearing.

"Eleven times in a little more than a year cases have been filed against Rappler, so yes, absolutely they're trying to pin me down and Rappler down," said Ressa.

The cyberlibel charge against Rappler tests the bounds of the young Philippine Cybercrime law.

NBI legal opinion

Before Hofileña, Rappler presented the heads of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) legal division Edwin Leuterio and Joselito Amon who both issued a legal opinion that there was no legal basis to charge Rappler for cyberlibel, citing the prescription period.

Their legal opinion was overturned by NBI Director Dante Gierran. The charge was upheld later by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

While the article was published in 2012, the complaint was only lodged in 2017, ordinarily a lapse of the one-year prescriptive period of ordinary libel in the revised penal code.

To be able to charge Ressa and Santos, the DOJ extended 1 year for ordinary libel to 12 years for cyber libel.

"The NBI chief himself did not adopt the recommendation, that's why the recommendation was filed before the DOJ. At this point, the evidence we have presented far outweighs the evidence of the defense," said Cruz.

Cruz also raised during hearing that there is jurisprudence saying legal opinions are not binding on the court.

"We're not asking the court to be bound, we're asking them to consider the legal opinion in itself," said Te.

"We're talking here of reasonable doubt. If there is reasonable doubt, the court would have no choice but to acquit and that's what we're trying to do, that there is reasonable doubt as to whether in fact the offense exists and whether the offense can still be prosecuted. The legal opinion bears us out," said Te.

Rappler is set to file its formal offer of evidence, afterwhich the case is submitted to the Manila RTC Branch 46 for decision.  Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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