Even with Maria Ressa off base, cyberlibel ought to be repealed PHOTO FROM PREDA FOUNDATION

Even with Maria Ressa off base, cyberlibel ought to be repealed Featured

Something seems off about the warning by Rappler’s Maria Ressa about her recent cyberlibel conviction, that it may have a chilling effect on press freedom and democracy in the Philippines. Certainly, any abuse of power, especially actions designed to curtail free speech, should be worrisome. But what is not often heard in the discourse about Ms. Ressa is that the complainant was not someone in government, not a public figure nor person in authority. And yet, Ms. Ressa keeps mentioning that her adversary is President Rodrigo Duterte, who is not a party to the case.

If the public dismisses Ms. Ressa’s calls for sympathy, it may be because of the backdrop to her case, which was the impeachment of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona. His removal from office was a politically divisive issue, and many still believe that it was unjust. Many suspect that former President Benigno Aquino 3rd was behind the Corona impeachment, and that it had something to do with the controversial Hacienda Luisita, which the Aquino family owns.

Incidentally, the cyberlibel law that was cited to convict Ms. Ressa was passed during Mr. Aquino’s term. That detail, too, has been glossed over by some media, particularly the foreign press, which bought into Ms. Ressa’s attacks on the Duterte administration.

To be clear, this editorial is not a defense of the Duterte government. If any media outfit should feel threatened, The Manila Times might be one of them. The Times faces a dozen libel and cyberlibel cases; most of them were filed by the “Little President’’ himself, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea. But instead of crying press freedom, The Times has been quietly following the legal process to defend our rights.

Where The Times might find common ground with Ms. Ressa is in the absolute opposition to the cyberlibel law, Republic Act (RA) 10175. In general, cyberlibel seems superfluous as there is already an existing law against libel in the Philippine Criminal Code.

Established principle

Yes, free speech or freedom of the press is not absolute. That much is established in Philippine law, which protects and offers remedies against malice and defamation. The old libel law is tough and far-reaching since it covers everyone in the media organization, including the janitor and others who have no direct hand in a story that may be questioned in court.

The proponents of cyberlibel took issue against the global reach of the internet, which serves as a new platform of traditional media as well as individuals using blogs and social media. But most of those who supported cyberlibel were legislators and other authority figures. Media performs an adversarial function against them as part of its societal duty to check those in power and protect public interests. Notice the conflict of interest?

In our view, Ms. Ressa’s Rappler would have been subject to the libel law in the Criminal Code even if her news service operates entirely online. Rappler has all the trappings of traditional media, and its operations are nearly identical to any newspaper or news program on radio and television. In fact, Rappler would likely qualify as a newspaper as defined by the World Association of Newspapers, which recognizes online publications in the United States and elsewhere.

Because of Ms. Ressa’s conviction, there is now interest to limit cyberlibel’s statute of limitations. But if those in Congress are truly sincere about protecting press freedom, they should look beyond Rappler and propose to scuttle cyberlibel altogether.

Of course, repealing RA 10175 could not be retroactive. But the position argued here is not about any particular media outfit or present case. This is about making the law just and fair, particularly to those outside the halls of power.

And in the spirit of fairness and professional journalism, Ms. Ressa should come clean about the facts of her case before waving the banner of press freedom and democracy. She should at least acknowledge that Rappler’s factually incorrect reporting played into the hands of those who unseated a chief justice of the Philippines.000
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