U.S. senators warn verdict vs Ressa sets 'dangerous precedent'

US senators criticized a Manila Regional Trial Court’s decision to convict Rappler CEO Maria Ressa over cyber libel, warning the guilty verdict set “dangerous precedents” for democracy and press freedom in the Philippines.  

In a joint statement on Tuesday, June 16, US Senators Edward Markey, Patrick Leahy, and Dick Durbin called on the Duterte government to "drop all politically motivated charges" against Ressa, Rappler, and journalists in the Philippines. 

The senators called the verdict a "travesty of justice, a retroactive and selective application of the law that sets dangerous precedents." 

"It is shocking to see the Philippine government strain to extend its legal reach to target journalists while so many extrajudicial abuses cry out for investigation and prosecution," they said. 

"At the very least, the defendants must be afforded every opportunity to appeal this decision," they added. 

Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio Montesa  on Monday, June 15, convicted Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Rey Santos Jr of cyber liber, in a trial widely seen as a test case for press freedom in the Philippines. 

The case is the latest in a string of attacks against the media seen under the Duterte administration, and is the most-high profile case filed by the government against individual journalists.  

The US senators said Ressa and her colleagues spoke truth to power through their work and showed "great courage" as the government moved to crack down on independent media such as Rappler, ABS-CBN, and other news outlets. 

"'Embrace your fear' is her message to all those around the world inspired by her example. Today we must face our own fear: that one of the oldest democracies in Asia, a United States ally, is abandoning its commitment to fundamental freedoms including freedom of the press," they said. (READ: U.S. should resist Maria Ressa verdict – Washington Post)

Markey, Durbin, and Leahy are among the outspoken US senators who earlier called attention to Ressa’s case and have also taken action to sanction Philippine officials linked to human rights violations under the Duterte administration, as well as the detention of Philippine opposition Senator Leila de Lima.  

In December 2019, the Duterte government banned the US lawmakers from entering the Philippines after they pushed for a resolution invoking Magnitsky sanctions against Philippine officials involved in De Lima’s detention.

Other high-profile US personalities such as Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright – two of 3 female secretaries of state – have also spoken out against Ressa’s verdict. Meanwhile, international media groups and journalists have called on governments around the world to condemn Ressa’s verdict

The absence of serious pushback, Australian journalist Peter Greste said, “will be a very clear signal not just to the Philippines but to other states that are limiting press freedom across the region, that they can get away with it, that they can crack down on journalists with relative impunity, that there is no big price to pay."

Ressa faces 7 more criminal charges in court. Rappler, meanwhile, faces a shutdown order that is currently being reviewed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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