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Philippines: Maria Ressa sentence a threat to media freedom

June 24, 2020 IN WIP
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The sentence served today, 15 June, against journalist and writer Maria Ressa, is a severe blow to freedom of expression in the Philippines, said PEN International. The ruling “undermines the already dwindling democratic space in which free media and civil society operate,” said The Philippine PEN.

Maria Ressa was sentenced by the Manila Regional Court to a prison term of between six months to six years on charges of ‘cybercrime’ for an article published on the on-line news platform Rappler in 2012. The article alleged corruption between a businessman and a judge. Ressa was convicted alongside her colleague a former researcher and writer, Reynaldo Santos Jr, under the Cybercrimes Prevention Act that was enacted in September 2012, several months after the article was published, and applied retroactively. Both Ressa and Santos are free on bail awaiting appeal.

Maria Ressa is one of the Philippines’ most well-known free speech advocates, having set up Rappler with three other women journalists in 2012. It soon became a source of exposés of corruption and human rights abuses, including the execution of thousands of Filipinos in the war against drugs. Ressa faces other libel cases, as well as criminal investigations into allegedly illegal foreign ownership of her companies and investigations into tax returns. Altogether these charges, believed to be politically motivated, could lead to around 100 years in prison. Maria Ressa was named a TIME person of the year in 2018 and spoke at the Global Conference for Media Freedom organised by the Canadian and British Governments in the UK in 2019. She is the author of two books on the rise of terrorism in Southeast Asia.

“Maria Ressa is a brave journalist who has reported fearlessly from across Southeast Asia during tumultuous times,” writes Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

“To convict her on grounds of criminal libel years after the incident during a pandemic is nothing but another cowardly way the authorities are seeking to intimidate media freedom in the Philippines. That Maria and her former colleague Reynaldo can appeal is a matter of comfort. That she is being tried at all shows the distance the Philippines has travelled from the promise of democracy that was born with the end of the Martial Law. We were privileged when she spoke to the Assembly of Delegates at the PEN Congress in Manila in 2019, when she spoke eloquently about the need to remain vigilant in defending our freedoms. We are dismayed by the verdict against one of the truly courageous journalists of our time and urge the Philippines to change its law which threatens the media and take immediate steps to stop the persecution of Maria and her colleague Reynaldo.”

The Philippine PEN Centre released the following statement:

STATEMENT OF PHILIPPINE CHAPTER OF THE INTERNATIONAL PEN ON THE CONVICTION OF MARIA RESSA AND REYNALDO SANTOS JR. FOR LIBEL

The Philippine Center of PEN International expresses its gravest concern over the recent conviction of journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyber libel for a 2012 article. Questions of constitutionality aside, this action further undermines the already dwindling democratic space in which free media and civil society operate.

This verdict cannot be seen as separate from the pattern of escalating threats and intimidation against Ms. Ressa and other media entities since 2016, for reportage that the present administration has found objectionable.

In solidarity with PEN International, the Philippine PEN stands by the principles of free expression and the unhampered flow of critical information.

We urge all citizens to uphold their right to free speech and equal protection under the law, and for all governments to protect these rights at all times.


For more information, please contact Sara Whyatt, Asia Programme Coordinator, at PEN International, Koops Mill Mews, Unit A, 162-164 Abbey St, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: sara.whyatt@pen-international.org

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People say that (writers) are pretty powerless: we don’t have an army, we don’t have a bureaucracy. But if that were true, then why would writers be arrested?... Because the spoken word is powerful.

— John Ralston Saul on the work of PEN International