No violation of Ressa's civil rights: DOJ

By Benjamin Pulta

February 14, 2019, 4:44 pm

MANILA -- Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Thursday assured full protection of the civil rights of online news website Rappler's publisher Maria Ressa, who was arrested on Wednesday in connection with a cyber libel complaint filed against her and the media firm by a private individual.

Guevarra said Ressa’s camp could have spared herself from being arrested and detained by the agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) if they really wanted to.

“The arrest of Ms. Ressa is simply procedural. She may post bail anytime – even before the warrant was served. There is no breaking of rule of law. We are following criminal procedures here,” Guevarra said.

Ressa posted bail of PHP100,000 on Thursday for her temporary liberty, not long after she publicly denounced the Philippine justice system for allegedly persecuting her.

“The cases against Rappler and Ms. Ressa have nothing to do with press freedom. Anyone who breaks the law shall be prosecuted,” Guevarra said.

“I assure her constitutional and legal rights will be respected, and I trust that the court will give her a fair trial, based solely on the facts and the law, and not on arguments ad hominem and emotional rhetoric,” Guevarra added.

DOJ spokesperson Undersecretary Markk Perete, meanwhile, said freedom of the press and libel are two different things.

"The Constitutionally-protected freedom of the press, as well as of speech and of expression, are zealously guarded by the Department. Our courts have consistently ruled that libel - whether made in print or online - is speech that does not enjoy protection under our Constitution. It is this crime which Ms. Ressa is alleged to have committed," Perete said in a statement.

He also stressed that press freedom does not give any person, regardless of profession, the license to engage in libel. 

"In any event, it must be pointed out that Ms. Ressa has full opportunity to defend herself in court and disprove the accusations against her," Perete added.

Ressa was arrested by virtue of a warrant issued by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46.

The arrest warrant also covers writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. The two have been accused of violating Section 4 of Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 by businessman Wilfredo Keng over an online article published by Rappler on May 29, 2012.

However, Ressa's camp said the law was only enacted in September that year, thus the complaint should have been dismissed.

The NBI cited a “continuous publication” theory in justifying the filing of the complaint.

The agency maintained that as long as the article can be found online, it can be covered by the said law even if it was first published before its enactment.

No turning back on case vs. Rappler, Ressa

Keng, meanwhile, vowed to pursue the case against Rappler and Ressa in a bid to clear his name.

The businessman said Rappler promised through formal and informal channels to heed his demand to take down the subject article and to clear his name, but said this never happened as the article remains posted on its website.

She said Ressa and Santos never tried to get his side or to fact-check the supposed crimes being imputed on him before posting the article.

“I have never had a criminal record. For almost four decades since I started working, I have consistently secured official clearance from the National Bureau of Investigation certifying that I have never been involved in any criminal case and have never had any criminal history,” Keng said in a statement.

“Since the 1980’s, I have never been investigated by or summoned before any law enforcement agency in connection with any alleged criminal act, much less have I been indicted, arrested, detained or convicted of any crime in the Philippines. Further, the National Bureau of Investigation, as the central repository and chief administrator of the country’s criminal history records, would never have found in my favor and filed the complaint against Rappler, along with its concerned officers and reporter, for cyber libel concerning defamatory imputation of crime if had any criminal record or history in their files,” he added.

Keng also said that article destroyed his reputation and put his life in danger.

“In the end, this story is not just about an ordinary suit filed by a private and hardworking citizen to clear his name. It is, in reality, a test case on the how the Philippine legal and judicial system will fare against the dangerous precedent that is being set by one reckless and irresponsible member of the media and of the online community,” said.

Keng also accused Ressa of trying to mislead the public by releasing news that his complaint against them was purportedly “dismissed” by the NBI.

“Such reckless, premature and inaccurate reporting on official government processes reek of actual malice and cyber bullying and border on the intentional propagation of ‘fake news’,” he added.

“If left unaccountable, Rappler, Ressa and Santos’ example of impunity will be emulated and replicated, and will destroy not just individual lives but our entire country,” Keng said. (PNA)