Philippines: Acquittal of journalist Maria Ressa is welcome, but government must do more to protect media freedom
ICJ welcomes the 18 January 2023 decision of the Philippine Court of Tax Appeals dismissing four tax evasion charges against journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and the online news outlet Rappler. Ressa still faces one tax case, and has an appeal pending before the Supreme Court of the Philippines seeking to overturn her 2020 cyber libel conviction.
The ICJ is concerned that the prosecution of Ressa and Rappler is likely to have been initiated for political reasons, filed in response to Rappler’s reportage relating to abuses during the Duterte administration’s so-called war on drugs. Journalistic activities are protected under the right to freedom of expression and information.
The ICJ calls on Philippine authorities to drop the remaining charges against Ressa and for the legislature to repeal the laws on criminal libel to align with the legal obligation of the Philippines to respect and ensure freedom of expression which is guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Philippine Constitution.
The charges against Ressa form part of a series of cases filed by the Philippine government under the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte. Apart from the tax evasion cases, Ressa, CEO and editor of Rappler, and journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr were found guilty of violating the provision on cyber libel of Republic Act No. 3326 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act (CPA). The charges stem from a 2012 article published by Rappler on businessman Wilfredo Keng’s alleged role in illegal drugs and human trafficking activities, as well as his relations to a former Justice of the Supreme Court to whom the businessman lent his vehicle. The article was published four months before the CPA came into force, but was found to have been “republished” when a typographical correction was made in 2014.
“Applying the cybercrime law retroactively sets a dangerous precedent, with prosecutors exercising tortured legal calisthenics to secure a conviction,” said Ian Seiderman, ICJ Legal and Policy Director, states. “The criminalization of libel serves no legitimate purpose in a State that respects human rights and the rule of law. It cripples the freedom of journalists to present factual information and analysis on matters of critical public interest.”
The UN Human Rights Committee has made clear that to comply with Article 19 of the ICCPR, States should generally avoid placing offences of defamation and libel under criminal law, and in no event should any person be subject to imprisonment on such charges.
The use of criminal law in this regard undermines the right to freedom of expression and creates a chilling effect on public discourse, especially when this is seen as critical of the government. This weaponization of the law leads to the shrinking of civic space and prevents independent journalists from freely doing work that is indispensable in a democratic society.
In the digital age marked by the use of social media as a primary means of communication, safeguarding freedom of expression by the media is essential to ensure the dissemination of diverse information and as a check on the power of governments and other institutions.
Article 19 of the ICCPR protects the right to freedom of expression and information. Under Article 19, freedom of expression, including freedom of the media, may only be restricted when measures limiting the right are prescribed by law and are strictly necessary to protect the rights or reputation of others, national security, public health, or morals.
Cyber libel is defined under the CPA as a public and malicious imputation of a crime, 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, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future. It has a penalty of imprisonment of between two years, four months, and one day to eight years. This is based on the provisions of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) which penalizes the same acts when done through traditional media. Under the RPC, libel is punishable by imprisonment of between six months and one day to four years and two months and a fine ranging from Forty thousand pesos (₱40,000) to One million two hundred thousand pesos (₱1,200,000) (roughly US$700 to US$22,000), or both, in addition to any civil action which the offended party may bring.
Caleen Chanyungco Obias, National Legal Consultant for the Philippines, International Commission of Jurists, e : firstname.lastname@example.orgNewsPress releases