Saying President Rodrigo Roa Duterte values press freedom, Malacañang on Monday said the decision of the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) to convict Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Rey Santos Jr. of cyber libel should be respected.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said despite Ressa and Santos’ guilty verdict, Duterte never filed a libel complaint against journalists publishing critical reports about him.
“Ni minsan hindi po siya naghain na kahit anong kaso ng libel laban sa kahit kaninong nabu-buwisit siyang mga peryodista. Naniniwala po siya sa malayang pag-iisip at pananalita at ang paninindigan niya, ang taong gobyerno hindi dapat onion-skinned (Not once did he file a libel complaint against any journalist who got on his nerves. He believes in free thinking, free speech, and he believes that government officials should not be onion-skinned),” he said in a virtual presser.
Roque said Duterte once supported Davao-based broadcaster Alexander Adonis who was convicted of libel and imprisoned in 2007 for reading on air a tabloid article about then House Speaker Prospero Nograles’ alleged extramarital encounter.
“Matapos pong nakulong si Adonis, patuloy pong nagbigay ng suporta ang Presidente kay Alexander Adonis at nagbigay din po siya ng material support (After Adonis was jailed, the President continued to give him support),” he said.
The former Bombo Radyo broadcaster previously questioned the compatibility of libel with freedom of expression before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). Roque then served as his lawyer.
The UNCHR eventually ruled that Adonis’ rights were violated and that defamation laws should not “stifle freedom of expression”.
Roque also dismissed as “without basis” Ressa’s claim that her conviction is a “cautionary tale” meant to strike fear, stressing that supporting Adonis was enough proof that Duterte supported the right to free expression and free press.
“Wala pong basehan iyan (That has no basis), she is barking at the wrong tree. Sinuportahan po ni Presidente si Alexander Adonis noong siya ay nagpunta sa UN Human Rights Committee. Ano pa po ang kinakailangang ebidensiya na isa sa pinakamalakas na supporter ng freedom of expression at freedom of the press ay ang Presidente (The President supported Alexander Adonis when we went to the UNCHR. What other evidence do you need to prove that the President is the biggest supporter of freedom of expression and freedom of the press)?” he said.
He emphasized that the complainant, businessman Wilfred Keng, is a private individual which means that there is a presumption that the report published in Rappler is malicious.
“Dahil private po ang complainant (Because the complainant is a private individual), the court gave it credence and applied the presumption that any malicious imputation is in fact malicious,” he said.
Roque also pointed out that it was during the administration of former President Benigno “Nonoy” Aquino III when cyber libel was pushed.
“Hindi po Presidente ang nasa likod sa panunupil diumano ng kalayaan nang malayang pananalita at pamamahayag. Iyan po ay desisyon ng ating Korte Suprema sa panahon pa ni Presidente Noynoy Aquino (The President is not behind efforts to curtail free speech and free press. That is the decision of the Supreme Court during the term of President Noynoy Aquino),” he said.
Manila RTC Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa sentenced Ressa and Santos to imprisonment ranging from six months and one day to six years.
Ressa and Santos were ordered to pay Keng PHP400,000 in moral and exemplary damages.
In 2017, Keng filed cyber libel charges against the two for naming him in a 2012 report as having lent his sports utility vehicle for the use of then Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was then facing impeachment.
“Mayroon pa naman pong pagkakataon si Maria Ressa na umapila; habang siya po ay umaapila, hindi naman po siya makukulong (Maria Ressa still has a chance to appeal; while appealing her case, she will not be jailed),” Roque said. “We wish her the best.” (PNA)