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Philippine Journalist Maria Ressa Found Guilty Of Violating Cyber Libel Law

Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa (left) talks with former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. during a news conference in Manila on Monday.
Aaron Favila
Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa (left) talks with former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. during a news conference in Manila on Monday.

Maria Ressa, the former CNN journalist who co-founded the Philippines' Rappler news site, has been convicted of cyber libel, a controversial charge that she has denied, maintaining that it's a politically motivated effort to silence independent journalism in the country.

Ressa, 56, was found guilty along with former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. in connection with a 2012 story by Santos on links between then Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona and wealthy businessmen. Corona was impeached and removed from office around the time the story was first published. He died in 2016.

Although Santos' story was published months before the cyber libel law came into effect, the government says that when Rappler republished it two years later for what Ressa maintains was to fix a "typo," the publication exposed itself to the new law.

Santos and Ressa, who were both allowed to remain free on bail pending an appeal, face up to six years in prison if the verdict stands.

Rappler's parent company, Rappler Holdings Corp., was found not guilty in Monday's proceeding.

Ressa was one of four journalists, including slain columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who were named by Time magazine as Person of the Year in 2018.

The cyber libel case is being viewed as a major test of press freedom in the Philippines, where the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has maintained a combative relationship with the media since coming to power in 2016. He has been particularly critical of Rappler, labeling the fiercely independent website "fake news." He has also attacked journalists as "spies" and warned that they could be targeted for assassination.

Ressa, who worked for CNN until 2010, has been arrested multiple times in recent years in what many critics have called a political vendetta against Rappler.

In 2018, the government announced that it would charge Ressa and Rappler Holdings with tax evasion.

Ressa has denied any wrongdoing in connection with either the tax evasion or cyber libel charges.

She was arrested twice last year, once in connection with the cyber libel case and again on the tax evasion charge.

Ressa, speaking with NPR's Weekend Edition last year, said she didn't think the government's move was just about Rappler.

"Press freedom is the foundation of the rights of all Filipinos to the truth," she told NPR. "I always say, you know, you have to help us hold the line; we're not against the government, but it is our job to hold the government accountable."

At a news conference following Monday's verdict, Ressa said the outcome was "not unexpected."

"We will keep fighting," she said. "We are going to stand up against any kind of attacks against press freedom."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.