Philippine journalist Maria Ressa was convicted Monday of cyber libel and sentenced to prison in a case that watchdogs say marks a dangerous erosion of press freedom under President Rodrigo Duterte. Ressa, 56, and her news site Rappler have been the target of a series of cases and probes after publishing stories critical of Duterte’s policies, including his drug war that has killed thousands.
The award-winning former CNN journalist faces up to six years behind bars in the culmination of a case that has drawn international concern.
It was not immediately clear how many years she would actually have to serve if the conviction becomes final, and Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa allowed Ressa to remain free on bail pending an appeal.
“We are going to stand up against any kind of attacks against press freedom,” a defiant Ressa told journalists after the conviction in Manila.
“It is a blow to us. But it is also not unexpected,” she added. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. But don’t be afraid. Because if you don’t use your rights, you will lose them.”
Monday’s verdict decided a trial that stemmed from a businessman’s 2017 complaint over a Rappler story five years earlier about his alleged ties to a then-judge on the nation’s top court.
Ressa, who Time magazine named as a Person of the Year in 2018, did not write the article and government investigators initially dismissed the businessman’s allegation.
But state prosecutors later filed charges against her and Reynaldo Santos, the former Rappler journalist who wrote it, under a controversial cyber crime statute aimed at online offences such as stalking and child pornography.
Santos was also found guilty on Monday and allowed to remain free on bail.
Duterte’s government has said the case is not politically motivated and that authorities must enforce the law, even against journalists.
But rights groups and press advocates say the libel charge along with a series of tax cases against Rappler and a government move to strip the news site of its licence amount to state harassment.
“Ressa… and the Rappler team are being singled out for their critical reporting of the Duterte administration,” Amnesty International said.
“With this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall.”
Human Rights Watch said the case “will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom.”
Ressa’s verdict comes just over a month after government regulators forced off the air ABS-CBN, the nation’s top broadcaster, following years of threats by Duterte to shut down the network.
Both Rappler and ABS-CBN have reported extensively on Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign in which police have gunned down alleged dealers and users in operations condemned by rights groups.
Some of the crackdown’s highest-profile critics have wound up behind bars, including Senator Leila de Lima, who is serving three years in jail on drug charges she insists were fabricated to silence her.
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In 2018, Duterte denounced Rappler as a “fake news outlet” and subsequently banned Ressa and her colleagues from his public engagements.