Justice department indicts Rappler for cyber libel

In this file photo, Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa submitted her counter-affidavit to the Department of Justice (DOJ) during the preliminary hearing.
(Philstar.com photo by Edd Gumban )

The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday, February 6, released the decision indicting Rappler Incorporated, its Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and executive editor Maria Ressa, and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyber libel for a story published in May 2012.

In the resolution dated on January 10, obtained by Rappler on February 4, and released to the media on February 6, all three members of the preliminary investigation panel of the justice department found probable cause and ruled in favor of the complainant – Wilfredo Keng.

Keng complained before the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in October 2017 over an alleged malicious story written by Santos and published by Rappler on May 29, 2012.

The story

At the height of former chief justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial, Santos wrote the article “CJ using SUVs of ‘controversial businessmen” naming Keng as an alleged owner of a sports utility vehicle that transports Corona to and from the Senate.

The article compiled a series of intelligence reports that allegedly implicated the businessman to criminal cases such as murder, smuggling, illegal drugs and human trafficking. Keng confirmed ownership of a black Chevrolet Suburban with the plate ZWK 111 but denied Corona’s use of it.

The complaint 

Keng complained not on his alleged ownership of the vehicle but on the background details of his “shady past.” The DOJ prosecutors led by Edwin Dayog said that the article had four elements of libel — defamatory, malicious, given publicity and with an identifiable victim.

Seven years after the story came out, Keng went to the NBI on October 11, 2017, and filed a formal affidavit on January 10, 2018. However, NBI Cybercrime Division under Manuel Antonio Eduarte dismissed the complaint on February 22, 2018, for lack of basis. Also, the prescription for filing libel is only within a year.

The same division revived the complaint when Keng submitted a supplemental affidavit on February 28, 2018 showing that Rappler updated the report on February 19, 2014, which is a time frame now covered by Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 which took effect four months after the original article was published.

Ressa said that such complaints and attacks thrown at the news website were “evidence” that the law is used as a weapon against them. Rappler, along with media outfits — Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN — had received threats from President Rodrigo Duterte.

“This indictment is evidence that the law has been weaponized: the NBI’s own lawyers recommended the case be thrown out, and the prosecutors wrongly named me an editor,” Ressa said as reported by The Philippine Daily Inquirer.

National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) chair Nonoy Espina said that the case would pose a danger in press freedom since articles published before the enactment of Republic Act No. 10175 could be used against the media outfits.

“This is an extremely dangerous proposition since it essentially means anyone can be made liable for anything and everything they posted even way before the cybercrime law,” he added.

Rappler’s legal counsel, JJ Disini, said that the resolution is dangerous not only for the media but also for bloggers and social media users.

“If the theory is that if a libelous article is published in the past and continues to be accessible today, and that constitutes libel today, then no one is safe. Anyone that has a libelous article that continues to be accessible may be charged with libel, and, moving forward, this affects everyone, not just media, even bloggers,” Disini said as reported by Rappler.

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