That’s how a recent Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial characterized the country’s so-called cyber-libel law, making it illegal to falsely malign someone online. Under the headline “Decriminalizing libel,” the piece describes a bill filed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros to repeal several articles of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.
“The proposed law addresses the government’s latest approach to shutting down the bearers of bad tidings,” the editorial maintains. As evidence, it cites the well-known case of Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, whose 2020 conviction shows “how libel laws are used against journalists” for, in Hontiveros’ words, “just doing their job.”
I certainly can’t say that never happens. I’ve only practiced journalism in the Philippines for five years compared to nearly 40 in the US, so it’s possible—perhaps even likely—that certain things have missed my purview.
One thing that hasn’t, however, is the infamous Ressa case, which I closely studied two years ago before writing a column on it. By “closely studied” I mean I simply read the publicly available transcript of the judge’s summary and resulting verdict. For those unfamiliar, here’s a review:
The accusation was that Ressa’s news site, Rappler, 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 murder, all of which he later denied.
During the trial, the prosecution presented seven witnesses, including Keng, who testified that the allegations were false, that business associates seeing them as late as 2018 had then viewed the businessman with prejudice, that Keng’s repeated requests for a retraction or follow-up containing his denials were ignored, and, finally, that he felt “humiliated and defamed” by the resulting damage to his business and personal life.
The defense: that Rappler maintains high standards and would never do anything wrong, that Ressa had no direct involvement in the story other than final say on whether to publish it, that Keng’s requested follow-up never appeared due to “more urgent news,” and that the original 2012 story ran three months prior to the cyber-libel law’s enactment followed by a reposting two years later containing only minor corrections.
Glaringly absent was any testimony regarding the actual veracity of the story itself.
Ok, as I’ve often said, I’m no lawyer, just a lowly reporter. I did, however, learn 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 questioned, you run it up the flagpole to the higher-ups (in this case, Ressa) to determine whether a retraction is warranted, and; 3. The best—and often only—defense against libel is truth.
In my humble opinion, Rappler failed on all counts. Or, as I wrote back then, “from where I sit… this conviction looks pretty solid.”
That’s not how most mainstream media saw it, of course. “Filipino American’s conviction is viewed as a severe blow to press freedom…” bellowed my alma mater, the Los Angeles Times. Not to be outdone, it’s East Coast counterpart, the New York Times, chimed right in with “The verdict is a new setback for press freedoms in a country where journalists have been bullied and threatened.” And, in a final immaculate touch of irony, Ressa won the 2021 Nobel Prize.
My own inescapable conclusion: that those journalists and the Nobel committee read a different transcript from the one I saw. Or, more likely, no transcript at all.
We can argue all day, of course, regarding verbal subtleties with conflicting legal interpretations. What’s clearly beyond dispute, however, is the overriding result: far from being “stifled” as the Inquirer suggests, the crusading Nobel journalist was handed a loudspeaker heard ‘round the world.
I guess that poor defamed businessman should just have kept his mouth shut.
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle and Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino,” will be released this month. A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he contributed to two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, Haldane is a prize-winning author, journalist and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. This column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.