Conviction of journalist Maria Ressa by the Philippines highlights a global decline in press freedom

The government of the Philippines has evidently adopted the latest ideas in information control: taking its citizens through a crazy chain of made-up reasoning and tailored facts designed not so much to convince, but to confuse and disarm. All in the service of an objective they cannot say out loud: to stomp on freedom of the press to prevent critical coverage of the government.

That’s the only way to understand Monday’s conviction in the Philippines of Maria Ressa and Raynaldo Santos on criminal libel charges. They could get six years in prison if they lose on appeal. Ressa, who is a dual U.S.-Philippine citizen, is a world-famous journalist, winner of CPJ’s Gwen Iffil Press Freedom Award in 2018, as well as Time magazine person of the year. In 2012, she founded the online news site Rappler, which has had devastatingly graphic coverage of the Philippines drug war and the thousands of extrajudicial killings—plainly not something the government is too keen to see reported. While facing eight totally unconvincing criminal cases against her for various alleged infractions, she’s been jetting around the world, picking up every conceivable journalism award and talking a lot about how social media has ruined the idea of truth and jeopardized journalism and journalists everywhere, as well as democracy.

Santos is the journalist who wrote the story that got the two in trouble.

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Which brings up the first craziness, which is that Ressa didn’t write, edit or supervise the offending story. Sure, she’s the big boss, but it’s an impossible stretch to think this could lead to her spending six years in prison over what may, or may not, have been an erroneous allegation in a story, when she had no involvement in the story’s production. If the case were serious, the government could have found much more logical targets in people who actually edited and produced the story.

Obviously Ressa herself is the target, and the libel case just a convenient weapon.

And then there’s the timing. The cyber libel law under which Ressa was convicted was enacted four months AFTER the offending article came out in 2012. So, obviously, no case, right? But in 2014, some diligent soul at Rappler discovered a typo in the article, one word misspelled, and had the temerity to correct it. The government then persuaded the court that this amounted to republishing the article, which then made the new cyber libel law applicable. Six years for correcting a typo—certainly a world record.

And then there’s the statute of limitations. In the Philippines, libel cases have had a statute of limitations of one year. The plaintiff only filed his case in 2017, five years after the article came out, three years after the “republication.” So again, obviously, no case. Unfortunately for Ressa and Santos, and journalists across the Philippines, the cyber libel bill did not get into the question of statute of limitations. The government argued that online libel is somehow different from other kinds of libel, arguing for 12 years—12 Years!—of potential liability, extreme jeopardy for any online writer or videographer who says something about somebody that years later the person finds objectionable.

Any one of these contortions of the law might just seem like something weird. But it takes real determination and creativity to bend so many procedures and precedents to reach this outcome, a maximum sentence. And if it can be done to Ressa and Santos, it could be done to any journalist in the Philippines, for seemingly any reason. And why bother to limit the arsenal to these tools? On May 5, the National Telecommunications Commission ordered the Philippines largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN off the air for no good reason. True, the Congress had not got around to renewing the station’s 25 year franchise agreement, although it has specifically asked the TNC to allow for a temporary license. It’s certainly no coincidence that President Rodrigo Duterte vowed at the end of last year to get the station off the air.

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The U.S. government could, and should, do much more to step up to the plate and advocate for Ressa. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo issued a prompt statement on Monday saying he was “outraged” by Russia’s conviction on espionage charges of American Paul Whelan, citing the violation of “international human rights obligations.” It took until Tuesday late morning before the State Department issued a tepid statement on Ressa’s case, not by Pompeo but by a spokesperson, saying the U.S. was “concerned” about the verdict. Where’s the outrage when a theoretically democratic ally stomps all over press freedom and tries to send a U.S. citizen to prison? Where’s the appeal to human rights when, in violation of international agreements it signed on to, the Philippines prepares to jail someone over libel charges? Possible fear of U.S. forces losing rights to visit the Philippines should not silence our government.

The Philippines was once a press freedom leader in Asia. Let’s hope it doesn’t start leading in the opposite direction. And let’s hope the U.S. government, and other liberal democracies, and people and NGOs all around the world start to push the Philippines hard in the right direction. The global shrinking space for press freedom and democracy threatens all of us, and the silence from top U.S. officials flashes a bright green light to governments around the world to go ahead and stomp on journalists who seek to hold them accountable.

Steven Butler is Asia Program Coordinator at Committee to Protect Journalist.