A court in the Philippines has found journalist Maria Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr guilty of “cyber libel”, in a controversial case seen as a major test of press freedom under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
In a decision issued on Monday, the court sentenced Ressa, the executive editor of the news website Rappler, and Santos Jr to a minimum of six months and one day to a maximum of six years in jail. It allowed them to post bail, pending an appeal. They are the first two journalists in the Philippines to be convicted for cyber libel.
Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa also ordered the payment equivalent to $8,000 for moral and exemplary damages to the businessman who lodged the complaint. The complainant originally sought an estimated $1m in damages.
In a press conference following the verdict, Ressa vowed to fight the case, saying the case of Rappler was “a cautionary tale” for the Philippine media.
“It is a blow to us. But it is also not unexpected,” Ressa said. “I appeal to you, the journalists in this room, the Filipinos who are listening, to protect your rights. We are meant to be a cautionary tale. We are meant to make you afraid. But don’t be afraid. Because if you don’t use your rights, you will lose them.
“Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything,” she added, as she fought back tears.
Santos said he was “disappointed” of the verdict and felt “very sad” at the outcome.
The case is the first of at least eight active cases filed against Ressa and her media organisation since Duterte came to office in 2016.
Following the verdict, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said “the court decision should be respected”, adding that Duterte “has never been behind any effort to curtail press freedom in the country”.
In a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) called the decision “a dark day” for independent Philippine media and all Filipinos.
“The verdict basically kills freedom of speech and of the press,” the organisation said. “But we will not be cowed. We will continue to stand our ground against all attempts to suppress our freedoms.”
The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) described the latest development as “a menacing blow to press freedom”.