By David Haldane
June 24, 2020
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The headlines screamed foul!
“Filipino American’s conviction is viewed as a severe blow to press freedom under strongman Duterte,” the Los Angeles Times shouted.
Not to be outdone, it’s East Coast counterpart, the New York Times, chimed right in: “The verdict is a new setback for press freedoms in a country where journalists have been bullied and threatened,” the paper intoned.
Oh my God, I thought, I’d better look into this.
What they were talking about, of course, was last week’s conviction of Maria Ressa, founding CEO of the online news publication, Rappler, and one of her former reporters, Reynaldo Santos, on charges of libel. The accusation was that the site had published a story – first in 2012 and again in 2014 – referring to an unspecified “intelligence report” tying businessman Wilfredo D. Keng to human trafficking, drug smuggling and, yes, even murder. Keng claimed that none of it was true and sued for libel.
Ah, but the narrative spread far and wide by Ressa – with the help of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines and almost every major publication I could find – was somewhat different. What this really was, they declared in unison, is the latest example of an authoritarian government punishing journalists whose work it doesn’t like.
“This is a…pivotal moment…for the idea of what a free press means,” Ressa declared at a press conference following the verdicts. “Will it be death by a thousand cuts, or are we going to hold the line so that we protect the rights that are enshrined in the Constitution?”
Even the U.S. government expressed its official “concern” and no less a luminary than former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got into the act, declaring that Ressa “was convicted for doing her job. We must fiercely protest attacks on the press; they are attacks on democracy,” the 2016 presidential candidate said.
So it was with great relish that I dug into the 37-page judge’s decision conveniently available online. And what a read it was.
Let me say at the outset that I am not a lawyer, nor do I have any idea whether President Duterte or his administration exerted any undue influence in this case. What I can claim with some confidence, however, is nearly half-a-century of experience in journalism and, well, at least a modicum of common sense. And from where I sit, I have to say that this conviction looks pretty solid.
Let’s review the evidence, as outlined by the judge. The prosecution presented 7 witnesses – including Keng himself – who testified that the article in question had been seen as late as 2018 by business associates who then viewed Keng with prejudice; that the allegations contained in it were untrue; that Keng, through his lawyer, had made numerous requests for a retraction or publication of another article containing “his side” of the story; that those requests were ignored for 7 months and never acted upon; and, finally, that Keng felt “humiliated and defamed” by the false allegations which hurt his business and caused his family to be “ridiculed and judged” by their friends.
The defense? Basically that Rappler has high standards with core values including accuracy, truth, fairness and balance; that Ressa had no direct involvement in the story but has the final say on what does and doesn’t get published; that Santos wrote the original story with the help of another reporter now deceased; that the follow-up requested by Keng never appeared because “it was buried by more urgent news;” and, finally, that the 2012 story was updated two years later with only a minor typographical correction. That was relevant because, though the cyber libel law they were accused of breaking hadn’t been enacted until four months after the original publication date, prosecutors contended that an update amounted to republication.
Glaringly absent was any testimony regarding the source or veracity of the story itself.
OK, as I said, I’m no lawyer just a lowly reporter. As such, however, I learned a few things in Journalism 101 that all journalists – especially one as celebrated as Ressa – should know; 1. You never run a negative news story about someone without giving them a chance to respond. 2. Once a story’s accuracy is challenged, you run it up the flagpole for the higher-ups (meaning Ressa) to determine whether a clarification or retraction is indicated. 3. The best – and often only – defense against libel is truth.
In my humble opinion, Rappler failed on all counts.
We may never know whether Duterte – who has certainly expressed disdain for Rappler in the past – personally leaned on the court in the case against Ressa. To me, though, the more important question is whether or not she is guilty.
Because if, as the judge believes, she actually committed a crime, then anyone pressing for prosecution could be viewed as performing a public service. And if her only defense is based on a technicality regarding dates, then, well…this isn’t exactly a good test case for press freedom.
Unless, of course, you’re talking about the freedom to commit libel.
David Haldane is the author of an award-winning memoir called “Nazis & Nudists.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an American journalist, essayist, and broadcaster whose radio work was awarded a 2018 Golden Mike by the Radio & Television News Association of Southern California. He currently lives in Mindanao with his Filipino wife and their two children. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure. http:///www.davidshaldane.com
Published originally in Mindanao Gold Star Daily