The Presidential Task Force on Media Security is well aware of the legal problems besetting online news site Rappler and its Chief Executive Officer, Ms. Maria Ressa.
Ms. Ressa was taken into custody on 13 February 2019 by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation following the issuance of a warrant for her arrest on charges of libel punishable under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. The complaint was filed against her and several other staff of Rappler by businessman Wilfredo Keng who was the subject of a controversial news article published by Rappler in 2012. The same article was updated and republished by Rappler in 2014.
An adversarial proceeding always involves parties on opposing sides. In this particular case, we must bear in mind that while Ms. Ressa and Mr. Reynaldo Santos, Jr., the writer of the article in question, stand accused for libel on one hand, there is a private complainant (Wilfredo Keng) on the other, who felt aggrieved by the publication. As a corollary, this resort to the judicial process is well within Mr. Keng’s right to prosecute his claim and in fact also serves as the perfect opportunity for Ms. Ressa and Mr. Santos to exercise their right to present evidence that will exonerate them from the charges when the case proceeds to trial. There are available remedies that they can exhaust to protect their rights and certainly they are not lacking in legal advice from their formidable team of lawyers.
This libel case of Ms. Ressa is not an isolated one. The Task Force has always stood by the observation that the mere performance of duties of journalists already exposes them to serious risks such as threats, actual physical attack, indictment for libel and other criminal offenses, etc. Not a few journalists have faced, or are facing, libel charges for articles they have written and caused to be published. And they go through the process of getting arrested, posting bail, and going to trial without fanfare and in many cases, without adequate legal assistance. There are some who, unfortunately, do not get the opportunity to avail of due process but are just physically assaulted or murdered in cold blood for their hard-hitting news— these are the types of cases that the Task Force deals with on a regular basis as it seeks to address issues on the safety of media workers.
Press freedom is alive and well in the Philippines. The upcoming project of the Task Force with UNESCO for strengthening journalists’ safety in the Philippines, for one, will be implemented in collaboration with various media organizations. The Task Force has also facilitated discussions among its media partners and resource persons for a consolidated position on the decriminalization of libel. The impulsive conclusion that the non-exemption of Ms. Ressa from the judicial process constitutes a blanket attack on press freedom in the Philippines is a blatant disregard for the earnest efforts of the very stakeholders to come up with programs aimed at safeguarding it.