Keng sues Ressa for cyber libel anew over a 2019 tweet


Businessman Wilfredo Keng has filed a separate complaint for cyber libel against Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa over a tweet on February 19, 2019, where the latter posted screenshots of a now taken-down article on Philstar.com.

Keng filed the cyber libel complaint on February 13, 2020, before the Makati City Office of the City Prosecutor. This was 4 months before a Manila court convicted Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr of cyber libel and sentenced them to 6 months and 1 day up to a maximum of 6 years in prison.

Ressa and Santos remain free while appealing the conviction. (READ: 'I'm scared to go to jail, I'm not as fearless as Maria')

Ressa's lawyer, former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te, said they have not yet been able to file a counter-affidavit because deadlines kept getting pushed due to the coronavirus lockdown.

What's the complaint?

On February 13, 2019, Ressa was arrested over the original cyber libel complaint that Keng had filed against her and Santos. This is the complaint that convicted Ressa and Santos on June 15.

Two days later, on February 15, 2019, Ressa posted on Twitter screenshots of a 2002 Philstar.com article with a title "Influential businessman eyed in ex-councilor's slay." In that article, Keng was allegedly linked to the murder of former Manila councilor Chika Go.

A day after the tweet, on February 16, 2019, Philstar.com took down the article from its website, saying it was because "the camp of Mr Wilfredo Keng raised the possibility of legal action." Philstar.com said it wanted to be "prudent" because "the scope and bounds of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 are still unexplored."

Keng said in his 11-page complaint: "In publishing the 2002 Philippine Star article in her Twitter account, the respondent has feloniously communicated the malicious imputations against me not only to her 350,000 Twitter followers, but to anyone who has access to the internet."

Ressa was informed of the complaint on March 6 through a subpoena. The deadline for the filing of her counter-affidavit, however, was pushed due to the pandemic.

Keng was the first to make public about this complaint in his statement to the media on June 15, as part of his reaction to the guilty verdict on Ressa and Santos by a Manila court.

Why the article?

Santos and Ressa were convicted because of a 2012 article on Rappler finding that the late former chief justice Renato Corona was using vehicles of influential businessmen, including Keng.  

Keng had disputed his characterization in the 2012 article where he was linked to drugs, human trafficking, and murder. In the 2012 Rappler story, his alleged link to murder referenced the Philstar.com article.

"[A] cursory comparison of the two articles will show that they have the same purpose: that of destroying my reputation," said Keng.

Keng's alleged links to drugs and human trafficking were based on a confidential government intelligence report, sourced by veteran investigative journalist Aries Rufo, who was credited in the tagline of Santos' story. Rufo died in 2015, and could no longer defend his work during the 2019 trial.

"The main distinction is that in the 2014 Rappler article, I was linked to drug smuggling, which was not alleged in the 2002 Philippine Star article," said Keng.

Keng cited 2014 because a typographical error was corrected in that year, and "updated" the 2012 article. This was used as basis of the Department of Justice (DOJ), and later on Manila Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa, to say that the article was "republished" in 2014, constituting a separate offense. No other changes were made in the article, save for the correction of one letter in the misspelled word "evation."

The May 2012 article of Santos could not have been prosecuted under the cybercrime law because it was passed only in September 2012.

Using the same republication argument, Keng said Ressa's tweet also constitutes a separate libel offense.

'Lawful and just fruition'

In a statement on June 15 after Ressa's and Santos' conviction, Keng said he hopes his new complaint would have the same result.

"Bukod sa pagkaso laban sa mga kasinungalingan at libelo ni Ressa noong 2012 at noong 2014 (aside from charging Ressa's lies and libels in 2012 and 2014), I have filed another complaint against Ressa for yet another libelous act before the Office of the City Prosecutor of Makati, which I hope to likewise see to its lawful and just fruition," said Keng. 

"It is of public record: My counsel had pleaded and begged with Rappler to correct their false public accusations that I am a criminal, or at the very least, to publish my side," said Keng.

During trial, Rappler Investigative Head Chay Hofileña said they were vetting Keng's Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) clearance issued to the businessman upon his request in August 2016, four years after the original article was published and signed by a PDEA official who would later be dismissed over a graft suit. This is the clearance that Keng's lawyers gave Rappler in 2016 when it initially wanted to take down Santos' 2012 story.

Keng filed the complaint in October 2017, or 5 years since the 2012 article, or 3 years since the 2014 correction. Libel in the Revised Penal Code lapses in one year only, but the DOJ – as upheld by Judge Montesa – said cyber libel prescribes in 12 years, meaning one can be sued within 12 years of publication.

Law experts have slammed this interpretation of cyber libel as "patently unconstitutional."

Media and law groups have warned that the 12-year prescription period, and the ruling on republication, would have a chilling effect on the free press. – 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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