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Press freedom: Yes, it matters

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

A free and independent press is one of the benchmarks used to measure the strength of a country’s democracy, and the level of its service to the public—which is the only reason for which governments exist.

A public that is well-informed from multiple news outlets, as well as government information agencies, is empowered to make informed choices—including who they choose to be the nation’s leaders. A public where freedom of expression is upheld by both the agencies of government and local media organizations, most of which are privately owned.

This is the basis for “holding the line” as Rappler CEO Maria Ressa put it. Ressa was arrested for libel as amended under the Cybercrime Law, or Republic Act 10175.

She was initially not given provision for bail by the judge who issued the arrest warrant for the libel case. Pressure from journalists in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world—as seen over social media—seems to have had the effect of persuading the judge otherwise. Ressa was later allowed to post bail to the tune of P100,000. Both libel and tax evasion are bailable offenses.

THREATS AND PRESSURE

Most journalists feel uncomfortable being the subject of a story carried in the press: “We tell the story. We are not the story” is how some of the old guard would put it. In this era of social media and constant demand for information online and social media that amplify reportage reach, journalists are brought closer to the public digitally.

Ressa and Rappler became the story thanks, in part, to President Rodrigo Duterte taking a strong dislike to them. They were sued for libel by businessman Wilfredo Keng over an article published by Rappler headlined “CJ using SUVs of controversial businessman” during the impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2011—several months before Republic Act 10175 (the Anti-Cybercrime Law of 2012) was enacted.

The prescription period for libel is only one year, under the Revised Penal Code (RPC). It has been nearly eight years since that article was uploaded to the Rappler website.

Besides the libel suit, Ressa and Rappler face tax evasion charges. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also revoked Rappler’s incorporation papers last year on allegations Rappler violated the constitutional restriction on the foreign ownership of mass media. Duterte has also singled out Rappler’s Pia Ranada during his press briefings at the Palace, along with one or two other journalists, and spoken bitterly of what he saw as their criticism of his administration.

If there is a perception of harassment and threats against the working press, then the context in which that perception is couched exists.

The story that Keng is suing Ressa and Rappler over was updated in 2015, within the purview of the amendments RA 10175 made to the 1930s libel law in the RPC. Keng was also reported by various media outlets as having contributed to Duterte’s presidential campaign.

Journalists have what are called “running stories,” which are updated as new data becomes available and is confirmed—old-school newspapers and magazines do this, and keep hard-copy files of the same. The developments in the libel suit against Ressa and Rappler will create jurisprudence that will likely affect print media and broadcast entities that keep copies of their audio and video files. Storage is still storage, whether digital or not.

The ramifications, and the chilling effect of this use of RA 10175, merit close vigilance, especially since journalists’ organizations like the National Press Club (NPC) and the National Union for Journalists (NUJP) have been pushing for decades now for the decriminalization of libel in the Philippines, which has an archaic libel law that has been deemed by international organizations as among the most draconian libel measures in the world.

Ressa and Rappler, believe it or not, don’t have it as bad as it can get. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 80 journalists have been killed while in the line of duty between 1992 and 2019—13 of them during the three years the Duterte administration has been in power.

In 2009, 32 members of the working press were massacred while covering the runup to the local elections in Ampatuan town, allegedly by members of a political clan of the same name. A decade has passed and the 58 people who were tortured and killed on the road to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) office in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao still haven’t been given the justice their families continue to seek, including those journalists. It has been called the single worst case of election-related violence in the history of Philippine politics.

Senatorial bet and erstwhile broadcaster Jiggy Manicad said there are no threats against journalists in the Philippines.

Yet journalists are subjected to harassment and, yes, the ultimate censorship: Murder. It is a reality members of the working press must live with as they do their jobs: Get coffee, transcribe interviews, verify data, put stories together, live under threats to livelihood and life and limb—oh, and get the news out and delivered to the public in a timely manner. Put up with people calling them “presstitutes” and other vile names without turning a hair. It is part of the job, harassment and threats.

Ressa was right when she told reporters covering her arrest and bail payment that “this is not just about me, and it is not just about Rappler. The message the government is sending is very clear and someone actually told our reporter this: Be silent.”

During an interview with the Philippines Graphic last year with Presidential Task Force on Media Security head Joel Maguiza Sy Egco, the PTFOMS head said he gets “several calls daily” from journalists who report threats made against them, and even more calls from journalists who are experiencing dire financial and health difficulties. “We are doing all we can, but those calls still come, day and night.”

PRICE OF FREEDOM

Because a free and independent press is considered a vital benchmark of whether the people themselves are free and their rights upheld, freedom of the press is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution. It is rooted in the people’s right to access to information of public interest.

This is why journalists in the Philippines are closing ranks around Ressa and Rappler, whatever their personal feelings about her and her website. An attack on one journalist is an attack on press freedom. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us—liking or disliking each other is not part of this closing of ranks.

The most basic duty a journalist carries day in and day out is to uphold free speech and press freedom: The threats that loom over journalists will translate into vile and, sadly, effective attacks on the rights of all Filipinos, including their right to choose which news outlets they’ll trust and what news items they will believe. Shoot the messenger, after all, and you will stop the transmission of the message. Non-journalists will not have a word of warning if the press permits itself to be silenced.

In a Facebook post that was widely shared, journalist Ed Lingao of TV5 wrote this: “The allegation is of cyberlibel for a story published months before the cyberlibel law was passed, and enforced now only because of a minor punctuation edit in 2015, when the law was already in effect. The prescription period for libel is only one year. Yet we are way beyond that, whether we look at the 2012 publication, or the 2015 edit.”

In his post, Lingao also wrote that “libel in the Philippines is probably the only crime where the accused is presumed guilty until or unless he proves himself innocent. It’s a complete contradiction of the principle of innocent until proven guilty,” citing Article 354 of the RPC: “Every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown.”

Under our libel laws, truth is not a defense. Eliminating any doubt that there was no malice intended in writing the piece that is the subject of the libel suit is. Libel is a criminal offense, with jail time of six years and a day for the non-online version, and double that penalty for the online version.

The RPC defines libel as a “public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.” Even hand-written letters and, under RA 10175, tweets and status posts over social media, are covered by the libel law, and children as young as 15 can be haled to court if accused of libel and jailed if convicted.

Laws, to be effective, must offer stern deterrence against violations. This is the chilling effect and, if the law is implemented justly, then that chilling effect will apply in the proper context—for keeping peace and order so everyone’s human rights will be upheld.

Weaponized and used outside of the context of the public good, however, laws can and have been used as tools of harassment and suppression of people’s rights—including the right to free speech, press freedom and the right of the people to public information vital to their daily lives.
When you take away the people’s right to information, and limit their choices of where they can gain access to this information, you are attacking the human rights that are theirs from birth. Tyrants do this all the time. Not a tyrant? Then do not use the power of the state granted to you by the people as a weapon against those people you are supposed to serve, for shame. Just don’t. G

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