Window to acquit Maria Ressa
Multi-awarded Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler staffer Reynaldo Santos Jr. will appeal to the Supreme Court the Oct. 10, 2022 denial by the Court of Appeals (CA) of their motion for reconsideration (MR) of the CA’s earlier judgment (penned by J Roberto P. Quiroz and concurred in by JJ Ramon M. Bato Jr. and Germano Francisco D. Legaspi) affirming the 37-page decision of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Manila finding them guilty of cyberlibel.
TO RECALL, RESSA AND SANTOS WERE CHARGED by the Department of Justice (DOJ) that “on or about 19 February 2014,” the accused “re-publish[ed] an article…” in the website of Rappler that “maliciously and publicly branded” Wilfredo Keng, a private citizen, “as a human trafficker, a drug and contraband smuggler, and worst, a murderer.”
Ordinarily understood as the (1) public and (2) malicious imputation of a crime, vice, or defect tending to cause dishonor via the printed media, libel is penalized by the Revised Penal Code. However, the new Cyber Crime Prevention Act of 2012 (Cybercrime Law) extended libel’s reach to imputations “committed through a computer system or any other similar means…” and increased the penalty therefor.
Unquestionably, the Rappler article publicly imputed despicable crimes tending to dishonor Keng. The prosecution proved that Keng was never charged with, much less convicted of, the crimes imputed to him. But was the imputation “malicious?” Answer: When the offended party is not a public officer or a public figure, malice is presumed by law; it need not be proven by the prosecution.
Given that Keng is a private citizen, the burden of proof to show lack of malice was shifted by the law to the accused. “Lamentably, the defense miserably failed in this regard,” ruled the lower courts. Worse, even if Keng were NOT a “public figure,” his evidence, according to the lower courts, had proven that the article was republished with “actual,” not just “presumed” malice. Oddly, both accused did not take the witness stand to contest this point and to explain their defenses.
THE CA AND THE RTC MAY HAVE SLAMMED THE DOOR TO AN ACQUITTAL, but a window to a legal exoneration had been opened by their appeal to the Supreme Court. Let me explain.
In my past pieces, I opined that to rebut Keng’s testimonial and documentary evidence that proved their guilt beyond reasonable doubt, Ressa and Santos should have testified to show that (1) the republished article is a fair comment on a matter of public interest, (2) the government has weaponized the cybercrime law to “harass, intimidate and silence” them and Rappler, and (3) Rappler had sufficient reasons why, for seven months, Rappler adamantly refused “despite numerous follow-up…” to publish Keng’s side.
Instead, they chose to air their defenses in the public fora and the media. Unfortunately for them, courts do not base their rulings on media reports and public assemblies. As a rule, they act only on the basis of duly proven evidence.
I also earlier opined that after the trial court has issued its carefully crafted decision, they should have skipped the CA and appealed directly to the Supreme Court to raise their truly viable defense—the crime has prescribed; therefore, they could no longer be punished for it because the one-year prescriptive period for libel had already lapsed when the DOJ filed the charge.
Verily, the CA is/was bound by, though it may have disagreed with, the unsigned resolution in Tolentino v. People (Aug. 6, 2018) setting the prescriptive period for cyberlibel at 15 years. Only the Supreme Court en banc can reverse or modify this resolution.
CONSEQUENTLY, AND NOT SURPRISINGLY, the CA indeed affirmed the trial court’s decision. Upon learning of the CA’s denial of their MR, Santos was reconciliatory, saying that the denial of “our motion (was) not surprising, but it’s disheartening, nevertheless. As we elevate our case to the SC, our fight against intimidation and suppression of press freedom continues. We still believe that the rule of law will prevail.” But Ressa’s reaction was bitter, grieving that the “Philippine legal system is not doing enough to stop it. I am disappointed by today’s ruling but sadly not surprised.”
Ignoring Ressa’s bitterness against the legal system, I hope the high court justices will rise above the emotional outbursts and would—like me if I were still an incumbent—veer toward the one-year prescriptive period because, philosophically, I believe that society is better served when cases are filed and prosecuted speedily.
By defending themselves with all the available legal weapons, both accused (despite Ressa’s bitterness) have shown their trust in our judicial system; thus, they should accept whatever may be the final decision of the highest court. Otherwise, they should have refused to participate in the judicial proceedings from the very beginning like what former senator Benigno Aquino Jr. did when he was tried by a military tribunal that subsequently sentenced him to death.
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