Today, the ICJ condemned the prosecution and conviction of journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, Jr. after the Manila Regional Trial Court found them guilty of cyber-libel for an article published on the news website Rappler. The ICJ called for the judgment to be reversed on appeal.
The ICJ also called on the Philippines to reform its laws to remove the possibility of criminal sanction for defamation and libel offenses, in line with its international legal obligations. The ICJ recalled that imprisonment for such offenses is never permissible.
“The guilty verdict is a new low for the Duterte administration, and adds to an atmosphere of intimidation that creates a chilling effect on online expression, especially for journalists seeking to hold the government to account,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia-Pacific Director.
“The conviction is not only a miscarriage of justice in this particular case; it also sets a terrible precedent for the use of criminal defamation laws to prosecute speech online in the Philippines and elsewhere in the region.”
Ressa and Santos were convicted pursuant to Section 4(c)(4) of the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act (CPA), and sentenced to imprisonment of up to six years and a fine of PhP 200,000 (approx. USD 4,000). Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler while Santos was the author of the article. Ressa’s conviction comes after years of legal harassment, forming part of a pattern of attacks upon the press by the Duterte government and placing the Philippines in violation of the right to freedom of expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the Philippines is a party.
The charges involved an article first published in May 2012 on the Rappler website, months before the CPA was enacted in September 2012. The article reported on businessman Wilfredo Keng’s alleged involvement in “human trafficking and drug smuggling.” Keng initiated the criminal proceedings against Ressa and Santos in October 2017, five years after the article was published.
However, the trial court considered the article to have been “republished” on 19 February 2014 when Rappler updated the article on its website to fix a typographical error. Further, since the CPA does not expressly mention the prescriptive period, the trial court held that Republic Act No. 3326 applies, which provides a 12-year prescriptive period for offenses punished under a ‘special law’ such as the CPA. In contrast, ordinary libel under the Revised Penal Code carries a one-year prescriptive period.
“Regardless of the merits of the case, criminal sanction involving imprisonment must never be imposed for defamation,” said Rawski.
“On top of this general consideration, the judgment even sets a dangerous precedent by expanding the prescriptive period and ‘publication’ requirement for the crime of libel, contradicting well-established protections against ex post facto laws and that any ambiguity in penal laws must be resolved in favor of the accused.”
The right to freedom of expression under Article 19 of the ICCPR extends to political discourse, commentary on public affairs and journalism. The UN Human Rights Committee, the supervisory body for the ICCPR, has called on States to abolish existing criminal defamation laws and reserve defamation for civil liability. The Committee concluded in 2012 that the Philippines’ criminalization of defamation, including under the CPA, breaches its obligations under the ICCPR. Article 15 of the ICCPR also prohibits the prosecution of persons for acts that were not considered a crime at the time of commission.
The Committee and the UN Human Rights Council have affirmed that these safeguards apply online as well as offline, as Article 19 protects expression regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression has consistently called for decriminalization of defamation as a criminal offence, which is inherently harsh and encourages self-censorship.
Emerlynne Gil, Senior International Legal Adviser, +662 619 8477 (ext. 206), emerlynne.gil(a)icj.org
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