Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC have expressed condemnation following Sunday’s court judgment handed down in a Manila court finding prominent journalist Maria Ressa, named Time’s Person of the Year in 2018, guilty of the criminal offence of “cyber libel”.
The judgement is widely seen to be part of a concerted attack to silence Ressa. She was sentenced to a minimum of six months and a maximum of six years imprisonment and granted bail pending appeal. A fine of approximately P400,000 (€7,063) was also imposed in a ruling handed down by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa in the Manila Regional Trial Court.
Ressa, former CNN bureau chief and one of four journalists named Time’s Person of the Year in 2018, stood accused of libelling businessman Wilfredo Keng in an article published on news website, Rappler.com.
The Court found Ressa and her co-defendant, journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr, guilty of the crime of cyber libel. Clooney and Gallagher lead the international counsel team acting for Ressa.
Clooney said she hoped the appeals court will set the record straight. “A court in the Philippines became complicit in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse. This conviction is an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines,” she said in a statement issued by the London law firm Doughty Street Chambers.
Independent journalism in the Philippines is “an act of bravery”, said Barrister Gallager, who pointed out that the charges against Ressa were baseless.
A travesty of justice; a tragedy for the Philippines; but not the end of the fight and solidarity with and for @mariaressa and #pressfreedom. Dearest friend, I am appalled, angry, and so much in awe with your courage. https://t.co/bJoYUpI0rp
— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) June 15, 2020
“At least 16 journalists have been killed since President Duterte came to office in 2016, and the verdict comes just weeks since the country’s largest media network was shut down. Maria Ressa’s conviction on baseless charges, for an article she did not write, under a draconian law which did not exist when the article was published, is an ugly stain on the Philippines’ reputation.”
They appealed for the international community to condemn this grave attack on independent journalism and media freedom in the strongest terms.
Ressa is an inspiration to many. Her journalistic standards in the face of severe intimidation and harassment has won her respect throughout the world.
She said: “I have been convicted, but it is also the justice system in the Philippines on trial. For years I have been targeted by the authorities, following the government’s weaponisation of social media. The judiciary became complicit in this insidious campaign to silence independent journalism and stifle press freedom. But neither I nor Rappler will be silenced.”
Ressa stressed that she would fight this conviction in order to continue doing her duty “to speak out and report the truth”.
Seven further cases remain pending against Ressa, exposing her potentially to decades in prison. The barrage of cases against Ressa, which allege illegal foreign media ownership of her news site and alleged tax offences, are equally spurious, and an act of retaliation by the current administration against her reporting, which has exposed corruption and abuses her lawyers said.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has characterised the cases against Ressa as an act of “persecution” by a “bully government.” In December 2019, the US Senate also criticised the cases, holding that they were “widely viewed by human rights observers and a number of governments as part of a pattern of ‘weaponising the rule of law’ to repress independent media.”