Philippine media trial begins of Duterte critic

In the Philippines, Rappler editor Maria Ressa’s libel trial has opened in a case seen as retaliation for reports on President Rodrigo Duterte.

The 55-year-old journalist could be jailed for years if convicted under the criminal cyber-libel law.

Ressa called the charges “preposterous and baseless”.

Ressa and Rappler have been hit with 10 other criminal charges in the last year.

“This case of cyberlibel stretches the rule of law until it breaks. How this is decided will have an impact on all Filipinos who post on Facebook – and of course, the quality of journalism in the digital age in the Philippines,” said Ressa, who was named a Time Magazine Person of the Year last year,

“The government hopes to intimidate us by siphoning both my personal time, our resources,” she told the media. “I won’t be intimidated. We continue to do our jobs. The mission of journalism has never been as important as it is today in the Philippines.”

The case centres on a Rappler report from 2012 about Wilfredo Keng, a businessman, and his alleged ties to a former high court judge.

State prosecutors initially dismissed the businessman’s 2017 complaint about the article but they later decided to pursue the charges.

The legal foundation of the case is a “cybercrime law” which Ressa argues did not take effect until months after the story was published.

Government lawyers say Rappler, one of the most influential news sites in the Philippines, updated the story in 2014 to alter a typographical error.

The law, which allows prosecution up to 12 years after libel is committed, would increasingly restrict freedom of expression and the use of social media, Ressa said.

Ressa, who has been arrested twice this year, and Rappler face tax and corporate fraud cases.

Rights lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of the Hollywood actor George Clooney, joined Ressa’s legal team this month. Clooney, who represented the recently released Reuters journalists in Myanmar, said the case echoed a recurring theme in her work. “Journalists who expose abuses face arrest while those who commit the abuses do so with impunity,” she said.

Duterte has criticised Rappler, banned it from covering his public events and forbidden state employees from talking to the news portal.

He has repeatedly described Rappler’s journalism as “fake news” but the populist president denies ordering the prosecution.

Just before taking office in 2016, Duterte told the media: “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.”

During Duterte’s three years in power, press freedom has severely declined. Reporters Without Borders ranked the Philippines at 134 out of 178 countries in its annual “World Press Freedom” index this year. The media rights group said three journalist killings were probably ordered by politicians.

The Duterte government has not welcomed media attention on its activities. Picture credit: YouTube