Corrupt, Coerce, Co-opt: Demoratic freedoms hit hard as Filipino journalist silenced by authoritarian President

July 11, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

A Filipino journalist is facing up to six years in prison after being found guilty of “cyber libel” for exposing government corruption and abuse of power.

What does this mean?

Maria Ressa, Philippines’ most prominent journalist, a Time magazine Person of the Year and a former CNN bureau chief is the CEO of the online news portal Rappler. Ressa and a former writer for the portal, Reynaldo Santos Jr, were charged with cyber libel over a story written in 2012. The story alleged corruption links between a Filipino businessman and a high court judge

Many view the charges as Duterte’s, the country’s authoritarian president, revenge over Rappler’s extensive coverage of his administration. Duterte’s war on drugs and brutal campaign conduct, which has left thousands of people dead or disappeared, has been under Rappler’s radar for years. Ressa faces another seven charges, including accusations of tax evasion and being linked to the Central Intelligence Agency. She has claimed that this is an attempt by Duterte’s administration to silence critical news media.

What's the big picture effect?

The court held that Rappler, the company, would be absolved  of all charges. However, both Ressa and Santos were fined, granted post-conviction bail and a right to appeal. Ressa claimed that by applying the law retroactively, prosecutors had misapplied the legislation. The case was first brought in 2017, but was dismissed as the statute of limitations on libel had passed since the charges related to a 2012 article. The cyber libel law in the Philippines came into force four months after Rappler’s publication in 2012. The article fell in the scope of the law in 2014, when the story was edited to “fix a typo.” 

This case represents the most recent attack by Duterte’s administration to intimidate the country’s  news media. A similar move was made in May, when Duterte shut down ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ most influential broadcaster. The administration also passed a new anti-terrorism act that targets government critics. The act allows warrantless arrests, detention without charge and other measures threatening freedom of speech. Since Duterte came to power in 2016, journalists have been targets of judicial harassment, aimed at silencing those exposing the government. Press freedom has deteriorated rapidly and now the country ranks 136th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

We have witnessed similar press censorship regulations by other authoritarian regimes. From blocking out social media in China to sentencing journalists to prison in Turkey, weaponising the law against the media is an established method of silencing critics under oppressive rule. If Ressa and Santos are convicted, Filipino democratic freedoms will experience a new wave of further restrictions. This begs the question: what are the implications of such censorship for the future of journalism in today’s media-focused society where even Twitter is politicised?

Report written by Selin Alagoun

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