MANILA – Maria Ressa has been charged with fraud, tax evasion and receiving money from the Central Intelligence Agency. She was arrested twice and paid bail eight times.
She is also the Philippines’ most prominent journalist, a Fulbright scientist, a Time Magazine Person of the Year for her fight against disinformation and a constant thorn in the side of Rodrigo Duterte, her country’s authoritarian yet widely popular president.
On Monday, after years of threats and allegations from the government, Ms. Ressa and a former colleague from the news site she founded, Rappler, were both convicted of cyber-abuse by a Manila court. They were sentenced to up to six years’ imprisonment and fined $ 8,000 each.
The verdict is yet another blow to press freedom in a country where journalists have been bullied and threatened. When President Trump calls American reporters “the people’s enemy,” Duterte goes a step further and calls them “bastards” who are “not exempt from murder.”
The verdict in the trial, which lasted almost a year, was pronounced by a judge on Monday in an almost empty courtroom. Only three reporters were present because of social distance rules that were supposed to contain the corona virus.
Speaking to a crowd of dozens of reporters and photographers outside the courtroom, Ms. Ressa said her conviction should serve as a warning.
“We are redefining what the new world will look like, what will become journalism,” said Ms Ressa. “Are we going to lose press freedom?”
Prosecutors first filed a defamation suit against Ms. Ressa in 2017 after a businessman disputed an article that he said was inaccurately associated with a top-level judge and linked him to the drug world. Rappler reported that Wilfredo Keng, the businessman, had loaned a sports car to Judge Renato Corona and cited sources alleging that Mr. Keng was tied to illegal drugs, human trafficking and murder.
Ms. Ressa faces seven more charges, including allegations of tax evasion. She has dismissed all charges and said the prosecution is an attempt by the Duterte government to taunt Rappler and weaken the country’s critical news media.
Ms. Ressa is a dual citizen of the United States and the Philippines.
Rappler and other news organizations have stubbornly discussed Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs that has left thousands dead and disappeared. The campaign has received international reprimand for its cruelty.
Mr. Duterte’s attacks have caught the attention of press freedom groups and human rights lawyers, including celebrity lawyer Amal Clooney.
“Today, a court in the Philippines became complicit in a sinister move to silence a journalist for uncovering corruption and abuse,” said Ms. Clooney in a statement. “This conviction is a violation of the rule of law, a grim warning to the press and a blow to democracy in the Philippines.”
The court declared Rappler, the company, not liable. Ms. Ressa and Rappler journalist Reynaldo Santos were both sentenced to six months to six years in prison. It is not clear whether they will actually serve at any time, and both have been released on bail pending appeal.
Ms. Ressa said last week over the phone that the charges were an attempt to silence Rappler, criticizing Mr. Duterte and his bloody crackdown on drug dealers and users.
“Corrupt, forced, co-opt. “You are with or against us,” she said. “If I am convicted, it is legally established.”
Regulators initially dismissed the charges because they related to a 2012 article, but were later dismissed by senior officials. Ms Ressa has alleged that the prosecutors have wrongly applied the law retroactively.
The case is the latest in a series of steps by the Duterte government to intimidate the news media outlets in the Philippines since taking office in 2016. In May, Mr. Duterte became ABS-CBN, the most influential broadcaster in the Philippines, which is the only news source available in some of the country’s most remote regions, has been effectively turned off.
“Are you proposing an order from a regulatory body instructing CBS or CNN to shut down, and they do? And it’s rural, ”said Ms Ressa last week.
Mr. Duterte has accused Rappler of being financed by the C.I.A., which Ms Ressa and the company have denied. Rappler’s chief political journalist Pia Ranada should not attend official presidential events.
Harry Roque, Mr. Duterte’s spokesman, tried to downplay the meaning of Monday’s verdict by saying the media should “respect the decision.”
“The President has said repeatedly that despite his negative reports, he has never brought a defamation suit against a journalist,” said Mr. Roque. “He believes in free speech and believes that everyone who works for the government does not have lean skin.”
But Leni Robredo, the leader of the opposition in the Philippines, called the verdict a “hair-raising development.”
“We must remember that this is just the last bill used to silence our free press,” she said in a statement. “Silencing, intimidating and arming the law against the media sends a clear message to any dissenting voice: shut up or you’re next.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said Monday’s verdict “essentially kills freedom of expression and the press.”
“This is a dark day not only for independent Philippine media, but for all Filipinos,” the group said. “But we’re not going to be put off. We stand firm against all attempts to suppress our freedoms. ”
The Philippines offers a cautionary tale to the United States and many countries around the world currently led by populist leaders who turned their attention to the news media and accused reporters of “fake news,” Ms. Ressa said.
Ms. Ressa, a former CNN agency chief and longtime journalist, created Rappler in 2012 with three female journalists who made a name for the People Power uprising that brought down President Ferdinand E. Marcos in the 1980s. They have described the current political landscape in the Philippines as more difficult for journalists than the period under Marcos.
“Reducing press freedom and arming the law in this way is a whole new level,” said Ms Ressa. “It’s something I haven’t seen since the days of Marcos. And seeing it again is heartbreaking.”
In recent years, Rappler was on the at the forefront of exposing false internet information in the country, which has become so rampant that a Facebook manager called it “patient zero” in a global pandemic for misinformation. In 2016, before the presidential election in the United States, Ms. Ressa met executives from Facebook to show them an investigation that showed the social media giant should take action against the spread of fake news on their platform. Facebook only asked for more of its data after the elections.
The reason this matters is where the Philippines goes, America follows. Take social media armaments, we were the test case for America, ”said Ms Ressa last week. “Online violence leads to real violence,” she added.
Jason Gutierrez reported from Manila and Alexandra Stevenson from Hong Kong.