(Eagle News)–“The right to free speech and freedom of the press cannot and should not be used as a shield against accountability.”
This is according to the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46, which handed down a guilty verdict for cyber libel against Rappler’s Maria Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr.
The cyber libel complaint was in connection with a story on businessman Wilfredo Keng published by the media organization in 2012 and republished in 2014.
In the story, Rappler alleged Keng was linked to human trafficking and smuggling activities, citing what it said was an intelligence report.
Keng has vehemently denied the allegations.
According to the 37-page ruling by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, if a person is found violating this law “in accordance with the parameters it provides, then he or she is penalized and will be held accountable.”
If a private individual, a netizen, can be held accountable for any defamatory posts or comments in the Internet, the court said “so too must accountability and journalistic responsibility be brought to bear upon online news organizations since the extent of its influence, as powered by the Internet, goes beyond the physical limitation of printed publications.”
“Here, Rappler and both accused did not offer a scintilla of proof that they verified the imputations of various crimes in the disputed article upon the person of Keng apart from a weeping and unexplained reference to a purported ‘intelligence report’ and a ‘2002 Philippine Star report.’ They did not verify the veracity of these allegations at all,” the court said, noting that Keng had even pleaded for the media organization to air his side of the story, but to no avail.
All elements of cyber libel present
According to the court, the prosecution was able to establish that all the elements of cyber libel were present in the article.
It said the article was “defamatory,” as there were several crimes imputed on the person of Keng, which, during the course of the trial, were found to be false allegations; Keng was clearly the person identified in the article; the offense was committed through a computer system; there is existence of malice; and there was publication.
As for the malice element, the court said since Keng is “neither a public official nor a public figure, the law explicitly presumes the existence of malice from the defamatory character of the assailed statement.”
The court said the element of publication was also present, noting also the “multiple publication rule” put forward by the Supreme Court in Brillante vs CA that says that a single defamatory statement, if published several times, “gives rise to as many offenses as there are publications.”
“Up to this date, the High Court has not overturned set ruling thus applying the principle and legal maxim stare decisis et non quieta movere under statutory construction, which means one should follow past precedents and should not disturb what has been settled..In this case, the fact remains that in the republished article dated 19 February 2014, the defamatory statements can still be found giving rise to the present indictment,”the court said.
Offense has not prescribed
Therefore, it said what Rappler said was an “update” of the 2012 article on Keng in 2014 was actually a “republication” since Rappler was unable to adduce evidence to its claim the supposed update was made only to correct a typographical error.
According to the court, since it has been established the article was republished in 2014, “the reckoning period for the determination whether the offense already prescribed or not” is on that date.
The court said the cyber libel law, or Republic Act No. 10175, does not provide for its own prescriptive period, which means the provisions of Act No. 3326–which the Supreme Court had ruled applies to offenses punishable by special laws that do not provide for their own prescriptive periods–applies, and not the one-year prescriptive period for ordinary libel.
The court said under Section 6 of that act, the penalty is one degree higher than that prescribed under the Revised Penal Code for ordinary libel, or prision correccional in its maximum period to prision mayor in its minimum period.
Given this penalty, which the court said was validated by the cyber libel law’s implementing rules and regulations, the cyber libel offense, it said, shall prescribe after 12 years following Section 1 of Article 3326.
“The instant case was filed in court on 5 February 2019, which is well within the period of 12 years, and clearly, prescription has not yet set in,” the court said.
Ressa and Santos were sentenced to an “indeterminate penalty of imprisonment ranging from six months and one day of prision correccional as minimum to six years of prision correccional as maximum.”
They were also ordered to pay “jointly and severally” P200,000 in moral damages and P200,000 in exemplary damages to Keng, noting that the fact that there was no allegation of damages in the information is “of no legal consequence.”
The court found Rappler had “no corporate liability” under Section 9 of the cyber libel law.
The court also “noted” the motion of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression for Leave to file amicus curiae brief.