Update: Maria Ressa's Nobel Peace Prize wasn't enough to convince a court in the Philippines of the merits of her appeal against a "cyber libel" conviction. The court not only upheld the convictions of the Rappler news site co-founder and former staffer Reynaldo Santos Jr., it increased their sentences by more than eight months, to a maximum of six years, eight months, and 20 days, PhilStar.com reports. The law they were convicted under didn't exist when the story deemed libelous was published in 2012 , but the court decided that it was "republished" in 2014 when a typo was fixed. Rappler, which was recently ordered to shut down, called the decision "unfortunate" and said it would appeal to higher courts, reports AFP. Our original story from June 15, 2020, follows:
Two journalists in the Philippines could face stiff prison sentences under a law that didn't come into force until months after their story was published. Rappler news site co-founder Maria Ressa—one of an international group of journalists collectively named as Time's "Person of the Year" in 2018—and former staffer Reynaldo Santos Jr. were found guilty of "cyber libel" over a 2012 story Santos wrote that linked businessman Wilfredo Keng to drugs and human trafficking, CNN reports. Prosecutors argued that a correction made to the story in 2014 counts as a "republication" that made Ressa and Santos eligible for prosecution under a cybercrime law that took effect in late 2012. Rappler has openly criticized President Rodrigo Duterte and Ressa says the president is trying to silence her.
The verdict is "an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines," says Amal Clooney, one of Ressa's lawyers. Another lawyer, JJ Disini, says the changes made in 2014 were "merely a punctuation change." (A 2019 article about the case on Rappler noted "the edits only added missing punctuation marks.") "If the libel had been committed way back in 2012, a change in punctuation couldn't have republished that libel," Disini says. Ressa, who faces a minimum sentence of six months in prison and a maximum sentence of seven years, plans to appeal the verdict. "Rappler and I were not the only ones on trial," Ressa tells the BBC. "I think what you're seeing is death by a thousand cuts—not just of press freedom but of democracy." (Read more Philippines stories.)