Decoding Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa's complicated legal battles

byTaylor Mulcahey
Jul 20, 2020 in Journalist Safety
Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa

On June 15, a Philippines court found renowned Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa and her former colleague Reynaldo Santos, Jr. guilty of criminal cyber libel. 

The ruling, issued from a small courtroom in downtown Manila, has been condemned by fellow journalists, politicians and organizations around the world. They’ve called it politically motivated and an attempt to silence critical, independent journalism in the country. A collective of 78 international organizations has formed the #HoldTheLine Coalition, and more than 10 thousand people have signed a petition calling on the Philippines government to drop all cases against Ressa.

“This is how democracy dies in the 21st century,” wrote Sheila Coronel in The Atlantic following the verdict. “There are no power grabs in the dead of night, no tanks rolling down the streets, no uniformed officers taking over TV stations. Just the steady drip, drip, drip of the erosion of democratic norms, the corruption of institutions, and the cowardly compromises of decision makers in courts and congresses.”

It’s just the latest assault on press freedom in the Philippines, which President Rodrigo Duterte has chipped away at since coming to power in 2016. 

Like other populist presidents, Duterte wields the term “fake news” to delegitimize independent journalism. In one 2016 comment he said, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination.”

Earlier this month, the Philippines’ House of Representatives, stacked with Duterte allies, forced the country’s largest broadcast company, ABS-CBN, to permanently shut down after failing to renew their franchise license. Two years earlier, Duterte's government filed cases against the owners of The Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country's largest daily newspaper, forcing them to announce they would sell the paper.  

Duterte has repeatedly attacked Ressa and Rappler, the independent Philippine news outlet she co-founded in 2012, and where she currently works as both executive editor and CEO. The outlet reported closely on the extrajudicial killings and growing death toll of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, and on the armies of pro-Duterte online trolls paid to manipulate public opinion. In response, Duterte has accused the publication of being funded by the CIA, supported online attacks on the site and Ressa herself, and banned Rappler’s political reporter from presidential events. In his 2017 State of the Union address, he falsely proclaimed Rappler was “fully owned” by Americans, a constitutional offense.

[Read more: Maria Ressa of Rappler warns of threats to independent journalism in the Philippines]

 

Since 2017, the Duterte administration has brought 12 cases against Ressa and Rappler. Eight remain active today.

“They’re trying to immobilize independent journalism by messing with our heads, crippling us with fear and emptying our pockets,” said Rappler Co-founder and Managing Editor Glenda Gloria in an interview with IJNet.

On Wednesday, July 22, Ressa will reappear in court for a criminal tax charge. Whether you’re just tuning into the story or have been following it for years, it can be difficult to keep up. To help you better follow Rappler’s cases, we’ve laid out the key information you need to know below.

Legal cases

Charges of illegal foreign ownership, libel and tax violations have been levied against Ressa and Rappler. In all of the following cases, the parties involved have pleaded not guilty or are actively contesting all complaints and charges.

Foreign ownership cases

  • 3 cases since 2018
  • All active, two criminal and one administrative

In January 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler’s license to operate

The SEC ruled that Rappler was in violation of the constitution related to foreign ownership of mass media companies due to an investment from the U.S.-based Omidyar Network. The Commission argued that the nature of the investment constituted foreign ownership, a breach of such restrictions on mass media.

According to Rappler and the legal response mounted on its behalf, the mechanism used for this investment — through the issuance of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) — is used by other media companies in the country, and doesn’t allow the holder a say in management or day-to-day operations. Essentially, they do not indicate ownership. 

Rappler appealed the verdict. The Court of Appeals ordered the SEC to review its earlier decision. The case remains with the SEC today and it is not known when it will issue a decision.

In March, 2019, Ressa and Rappler board members were charged with violating the Securities Regulation Code and the Anti Dummy Law, charges related to the above SEC case. Again at issue was the question of foreign ownership. Two criminal cases against Ressa ultimately emerged. These two cases have been remanded to the prosecutor, suspending court proceedings for both. 

Ressa was arrested on these charges in late March, 2019 after stepping off a plane from San Francisco. 

[Read more: Rappler’s Maria Ressa fights back against social media’s dark side]

Libel cases

  • 3 cases since 2017
  • 2 active, both criminal

Last month’s cyber libel conviction centered on a typo in an article published by Rappler in 2012. Reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr.’s piece exposed allegedly corrupt activity by businessman Wilfredo Keng and former Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona. 

Keng filed cyber libel charges against Rappler in 2017, five years after the publication date. Notably, the cyber libel law came into effect four months after the article was published. Prosecutors argued that the correction of the typo — “evation” to “evasion” — in 2014 meant it had been effectively published again.

Authorities first arrested Ressa in February, 2019 in relation to the case. Ressa and Santos are currently out on bail pending appeal, following the guilty verdict last month. The case can be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. 

While Keng brought the initial action against Rappler, the National Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice turned the complaint into a criminal charge filed against Ressa personally. 

A second libel complaint against Ressa, also filed by Keng, has recently been activated. It pertains to a tweet that she posted in 2019. Ressa is scheduled to appear at the prosecutor's office on July 30, 2020 with her response to the complaint.

A third libel case dating back to 2017 was dismissed in 2019. The Philippines’ former interior undersecretary, John Castriciones, accused Ressa and Rappler reporter Rambo Talabong of libel.

Tax cases

  • 6 cases since 2018
  • 3 active, two criminal and one administrative

There are three tax-related cases active against Ressa and Rappler today. All stem from the original SEC investigation. 

The prosecution argues that the PDR foreign investments generated income that Rappler did not declare in its tax returns, and that Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corporation evaded tax and misrepresented their tax returns.  

All of the tax matters are based on the authorities changing the designation of Rappler’s holding company — Rappler Holdings Corporation — to a “dealer in securities,” which it is not. It is a holding company for a news organization.

The administrative complaint is before the Bureau of Internal Revenue. 

One of the two criminal cases is being run through the Court of Tax Appeals. It consists of one count of tax evasion and three counts of failing to supply correct information. 

The second criminal case is before the Pasig Regional Trial Court as the amount of money in question is below the minimum threshold for the tax court. 

After an arrest warrant was issued against Ressa for the case, she turned herself in in December, 2018 — just one week before her arrest on the other tax charges mentioned above. 

Ressa will appear at the Pasig Regional Trial Court for the first time for this case on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

In a statement published ahead of the court date, the #HoldTheLine Coalition’s Steering Committee called for the “baseless” tax and foreign ownership charges to be dropped.

What's next

Ressa and Santos face up to six years in prison for last month’s guilty verdict in the criminal cyber libel case. Across the eight active cases today, Ressa faces nearly a century in prison. 

“What we are seeing play out in the Philippines is the weaponization of a range of laws — including cyber libel, foreign ownership and tax laws — to target independent, investigative journalism and media freedom,” said the co-lead of Ressa’s international legal team, Caoilfhionn Gallagher. “Journalism is not a crime, but in the Philippines, a journalist is being wrongly treated as criminal by a barrage of laws and lawsuits.”

Despite the legal challenges ahead for Rappler, the publication continues to grow and expand. Just last week they launched a new platform, Lighthouse, which they hope to use to inspire movements for change, and connect social causes with donors and organizations.

Rappler staff are tired, upset and low on morale amid the legal attacks, and in light of the recent takedown of ABS-CBN, said Gloria. They’re motivated to continue their work, nonetheless. “Many see Rappler as not just holding the line,” she said, “but fighting what needs to be fought for.”

This message resonates across the globe. The world is watching what happens to Ressa and Rappler. As Amal Clooney, Ressa’s lawyer, wrote in The Washington Post, “If Maria is convicted and locked up for doing her work, the message to other journalists and independent voices is clear: Keep quiet, or you’ll be next.”


Taylor Mulcahey is the editor of IJNet.

This article was updated on July 21, 2020 to clarify the number of cases and complaints against Ressa and Rappler.

This article in the first of a series of articles on IJNet on the cases against Maria Ressa and Rappler, and how they relate to press freedom worldwide. 

Main image courtesy of the International Center for Journalists.