Maria Ressa, Rey Santos Jr convicted of cyber libel

Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 convicted Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr over cyber libel charges in a high-profile verdict handed down Monday, June 15. Rappler as a company was declared to have no liability. 

The court allowed bail under the same bond. They have each been ordered to pay P200,000 in moral damages and another P200,000 in exemplary damages. Once the conviction becomes final, they will each have to pay P400,000 in damages.

Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa ruled that only Ressa and Santos are guilty of cyber libel charges. Rappler Inc was initially charged in the suit. The court sentenced Ressa and Santos to a minimum of 6 months and 1 day to a maximum of 6 years in jail over charges filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng in a case that tested the 8-year-old Philippine cybercrime law.

Ressa and Santos won't have to go to jail because the conviction is appealable all the way to the Supreme Court. Ressa and Santos are entitled to post-conviction bail while they exhaust legal remedies in higher courts.

The verdict was handed down in person during the pandemic, with the small courtroom of Branch 46 accommodating only the defendants, the complainant, one lawyer from each of the firms representing them, and 3 reporters. (READ: TIMELINE: Rappler's cyber libel case)

Keng earlier demanded P50 million in damages from the embattled news organization, which is also facing a shutdown order from the government over its Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs).

Ressa faces 7 other charges before the Court of Tax Appeals, and Pasig City RTC, stemming from the mother case over the company's PDRs, which the Court of Appeals (CA) has ruled to be already cured.

The CA has remanded the shutdown order to the Securities and Exchange Commission for review. 

Ressa's and Santos' cyber libel case stemmed from the latter's May 2012 article on the late former chief justice Renato Corona's links to businessmen, including Keng.

Keng disputed parts of the article that quoted an intelligence report linking him to drugs and human trafficking.

The court emphasized that Rappler did not verify the information on Keng and did not publish his side.

Keng filed the complaint in 2017 or 5 years later, beyond the more typical one-year prescription period for libel under the Revised Penal Code. But because the cybercrime law is silent on the prescription period for cyber libel, the Department of Justice found an obscure law – Republic Act No. 3326 – to extend libel's prescription period from one year to 12 years.

There was also a question of whether the cybercrime law could apply because it was enacted into law only in September 2012, or 4 months after the publication of the article.

But the DOJ ruled that because the article reflected an update at a later date when the cybercrime law was already enacted, the law would apply. The update corrected a previously missed typographical error – from "evation" to "evasion." – 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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