QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 16 June) — On Monday, June 15, 2020, a Manila Regional Trial Court convicted Rappler Executive Editor Maria Ressa and Rappler former researcher Reynaldo Santos, of cyber libel. The decision stems from a 2017 case filed against Ms Ressa by prosecutors after a businessman disputed an article that he said inaccurately linked him to a top-level judge and tied him to the drug world. But the case was portrayed by Ms Ressa and her news outlet, Rappler, as the Duterte administration’s latest attempt to brush back freedom of the press. In the decision, the court declared Rappler, the company, to have no liability. Ms. Ressa and Santos were both sentenced to between six months and up to six years over the charges. They will continue to be free on bail pending appeal.
The conviction is a big blow to press freedom. Reacting to a possible conviction last week, Maria Ressa said: “Corrupt, coerce, co-opt. You’re with us or against us,” she said. “If I’m convicted, then it’s codified into law.”
It takes no great sense of wonderment that the hand behind the charges against the veteran journalist is the President himself. It has been a worrisome if not a tedious pattern that the government has demonstrated for the last four years. The quandary that is ABS-CBN, the threats against GMA, the many journalists who are in prison or worse, have fallen from assassin`s bullet – this is the fate of many press practitioners under this administration, that is, if one is a critic, like CJ Sereno, Senator Leila de Lima, VP Robredo etc., refuse to toe the line, or dare question the status quo or oppose the anti-drug war of the administration.
Expect a slew of lawsuits and be hounded and demonized if you speak out against the powers-that-be.
The plight of Maria Ressa is merely symptomatic of the woeful state of press freedom and the right to speech in the country. Forces continue to erode civil rights and freedoms under all circumstances, be it in ordinary times or during the pandemic. It is all reminiscent of the Martial law era when rights were effectively curtailed; when journalists had to struggle quite a lot, and even paid with their lives to make sure the press stayed that way.
Freedom of information and of the press, a facet of freedom of speech, are essential cognate rights in a democratic state. A free flow of opinions and views by the citizens enables them to come up with a reasoned judgment concerning issues of public concerns – especially now when we are in the midst of a pandemic where every truthful information is critical. These freedoms are especially important in Mindanao because of the many governance issues of our island. It is thus very important that the citizens’ right to speak out and express themselves is not unduly stifled. Media outlets like ABS-CBN, GMA and media practitioners provide us with critical information on matters that directly or indirectly affect us. It is therefore important they are allowed to gather, disseminate information and publish their findings, without fear or favour.
Restraining freedom of the press and expression is proscribed, either in the form of prior restraint or subsequent punishment. These are basic freedoms that the State is mandated to protect, not destroy. Doctrinally, prior restraint and subsequent punishment of press freedom are proscribed. For the courts, protection of freedom of expression is the norm, and any restriction is treated an exemption. The power to exercise prior restraint is not to be presumed; rather the presumption is against its validity. And it is respondent’s burden to overthrow such presumption. Any act that restrains speech should be greeted with furrowed brows, so it has been said. Prior restraint is a more severe restriction on freedom of expression than subsequent punishment. Although subsequent punishment also deters expression, still the ideas are disseminated to the public. Prior restraint prevents even the dissemination of ideas to the public. While there can be no prior restraint on protected expression, such expression may be subject to subsequent punishment, either civilly or criminally.
The government, not contented with employing tools to suppress dissent and threaten civil liberties, is on the verge of passing into law a most ominous and sinister piece of legislation – the Anti-terror bill. This is a most unwelcome tool in the arsenal of repression.
As things now stand, we can only wonder when the government will take it upon itself to consider the good of the people by respecting what is intrinsically theirs, not only as citizens of this Republic but simply because they are human beings. Instead, we see a government that continuously undermines the rights of the people, effectively abdicating its constitutional mandate to protect and serve its citizens and work for their welfare – the very reason of its existence. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Antonio “Tony” La Viña of Cagayan de Oro City is former Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. He teaches Constitutional law in several schools in Manila and Mindanao)