Maria Ressa’s appeal in a cyber libel lawsuit is denied by the Court of Appeals

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Maria Ressa's appeal in a cyber libel lawsuit is denied by the Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals (CA) denied the move for reconsideration filed in their cyber libel case by Nobel Peace Prize winner and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr.

In a 16-page judgement dated 10 October, the fourth division of the Court of Case dismissed the appeal. The decision was signed by Associate Justices Roberto Quiroz, Ramon Bato Jr., and Germano Francisco Legaspi. They were the same judges who had previously signed the California Supreme Court judgment that upheld the convictions of Ressa and Santos.

According to the CA, Ressa and Santos’s disagreements were previously resolved.

“A thorough examination of the application for reconsideration discloses that the issues presented by the accused-appellants have been fully handled and explored in the challenged Decision,” the court stated.

The attorney general also argued that the convictions of Ressa and Santos were not intended to restrict free speech.

“In conclusion, it is worthy and pertinent to note that the conviction of the accused-appellants for the crime of cyberlibel punishable under the Cybercrime Law is not intended to stifle free speech or to produce a chilling effect on the users of cyberspace that could potentially inhibit free speech.”

In contrast, the CA stated that the goal of the law is to “protect the right to free speech and to limit, if not completely prevent, the reckless and illegal use of computer networks as a tool to perpetrate traditional criminal acts…”

Ressa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, stated in a statement that she is “disappointed” but not shocked by the judgment.

“The harassment and intimidation campaign against me and Rappler continues, and the legal system in the Philippines is not doing enough to stop it. I am saddened, but not shocked, by today’s judgment,” Ressa remarked.

Ressa continued, “This highlights the significance of independent journalists holding power accountable. We continue to focus on what we do best – journalism – despite these continuous onslaught from all sides.”

In a second statement, Santos reaffirmed his belief that the rule of law will ultimately prevail.

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“The CA’s decision to deny our application is not unexpected, but it is nonetheless distressing. As we appeal to the Supreme Court, our fight against intimidation and repression of liberty continues. We continue to think the rule of law will triumph.”

Theodore “Ted” Te, attorney for Rappler and former spokesperson for the Supreme Court, stated that they will now petition the Supreme Court to review and overturn Ressa’s sentence.

The CA also reiterated that the disputed story had been republished. The court stated that the argument that ex post facto was applied on the basis that the correction of one letter is insufficient to be constituted a republication is “without merit.”

“As established, the decision of republication is not dependent on whether the repairs made were considerable or not,” the appeals court concluded. “What matters is that the exact same libelous item was republished at a later period.”

Regarding the increase in punishment, the CA stated that the argument that Wilberto Tolentino v. People had no doctrinal merit and cannot be utilized as a precedent since it was “an unsigned resolution” was erroneous. This case stated that the statute of limitations for internet libel is fifteen years.

The court further emphasized the distinction between traditional and online publications: “As it stands, in the case of libel through conventional publication, the libelous item is only issued and distributed once — on the date of publication.” The court stated that this is not the case for online publications, since “the commission of such an offense is ongoing because the piece remains online in perpetuity unless removed from all online sites where it was published…”

Regarding Keng’s argument, the CA stated that it was insufficient to designate him as a public person: “As previously decided, the notion that Wilfredo Keng is a prominent businessman with ties to multiple enterprises is insufficient to define him as a public figure.”

According to the Ciriaco “Boy” Guingguing v. Honorable Court of Appeals judgment, the word “public figure” in the context of libel refers more to a celebrity. According to the judgement, a public figure is “someone who has attained a position in which public attention is concentrated on him as an individual.”

It also cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in Alfonso Yuchengco v. The Manila Chronicle Publishing Corporation et al., which settled the question of whether a businessman can be designated a public figure. The court stated that Keng’s status as a well-known businessman does not qualify him as a public figure with “legitimate interest in his activities and character.”

The CA stated that there is no evidence that “he voluntarily propelled himself to the forefront of the particular public concerns mentioned in the defamatory publication.”

In 2020, Branch 46 of the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) found Ressa and Santos guilty of online slander charges filed by Keng. The case put the eight-year-old Philippine cybercrime statute to the test.

The court in Manila construed the cyber-libel statute as having a 12-year statute of limitations, as opposed to only one. Additionally, the lower court determined that republication constitutes a distinct violation.

Ressa and Santos were originally sentenced to between six months and one day and six years in jail, with a minimum of six months and one day and a maximum of six years. The appellate court added eight months and twenty days to the maximum sentence of incarceration.

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