The Maria Ressa case – when in a war zone, watch out for mine fields

MY dear departed friend Alex Esclamado, publisher and editor of Philippine News, had a practical advice for members of his editorial and reportorial staff: “If you are not 100% sure of your facts, use the modifier ‘alleged.’ It allows you a way out of a libel case.” However, he would add that there was no substitute for truth, accuracy and proof to back up a news story.

Alex used the Philippine News, a weekly and the only nationally circulated Filipino newspaper in the US at the time, to wage an unrelenting campaign against the martial law regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, He was offered several million dollars to stop the attacks, but he and his family decided that their journalistic integrity was worth much more than money.

Unfortunately, advertisers were “persuaded” to stop supporting the paper. Thus, Alex had to borrow money from everyone in sight to keep on publishing. Remarkably, Philippine News did not miss a single issue until Marcos was deposed.

For his courage, Alex was conferred the Philippine Legion of Honor by President Corazon Aquino, after the People Power revolution. However, the Esclamados found themselves deep in debt.

Having known Alex, I can appreciate the courage and zeal of Maria Ressa, editor and CEO of the online news medium, Rappler. Ressa and a researcher-writer, Reynaldo Santos, Jr., have just been found guilty of cyber libel by a Manila court. Ressa also faces other charges, including alleged tax evasion and alleged violation of the Constitutional prohibition against foreign ownership of Philippine news media.

Notice how I have studiously used the term “alleged” – you see, what I know about the case is what I have heard and read in the news, and from my own research.

Ressa believes that they are being persecuted, rather than prosecuted, for Rappler’s reports on the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, particularly his bloody war on drugs (some estimates have placed the death toll at over 20,000).

For sure, the “drug war” stories have been gruesome, particularly the allegations of extra-judicial killings. Human rights activists around the world have condemned Duterte for these killings and have threatened charges of genocide. That could hound Duterte after he vacates the presidency.

Ressa has remained stoical and appears ready to face whatever the fates may bring. For her courage, Ressa was named Time Magazine Person of the Year for 2018 and has been extolled in the international media. This has also meant a bad image for Duterte and the Philippines.

But Duterte’s spokesmen have denied any hand in the cyber libel verdict, pointing out that it is not about Rappler’s reports on the government’s drug war, but for a news item that came out on May 29, 2012 by-lined by Reynaldo Santos, Jr.  The story was headlined, “CJ using SUVs of controversial’ businessmen” It was about then Chief Justice Renato Corona who was facing an impeachment trial in the Senate.

The news item stated: “MANILA, Philippines – Even as the Corona impeachment trial comes to a close, controversy continues to hound the Chief Justice. He appears to have a penchant for using vehicles registered under the names of controversial personalities.

“His black Chevrolet Suburban, a sports utility vehicle he used to travel to and from the Senate – when he appeared on May 22 and 25 before the impeachment court – is being linked to questionable transactions and persons.”

Manila Times columnist, Rigoberto Tiglao, who has not been shy about his defense of the Duterte administration, wrote the following commentary, excerpts of which read:

“IT is quite despicable that Maria Ressa and her Yellow crowd have been shouting to the world that her criminal conviction for libel for a Rappler article was suppression of the press…

“The complainant is not Duterte or the Philippine government but a Filipino-Chinese businessman, Wilfredo Keng…

“The target of the May 29, 2012 libelous article written by one Reynaldo Santos Jr. was not really businessman Wilfredo Keng, who filed and won the libel case against him and Ressa…

“As is obvious from the article’s title itself…its aim was to smear Corona’s integrity, suggesting that Keng was Corona’s crony, who the article claimed was ‘under surveillance by the National Security Council for alleged involvement in illegal activities, namely human trafficking and drug smuggling…’

”Keng was also accused of ‘smuggling fake cigarettes and granting special investors residence to Chinese nationals,’ the article claimed.

“Although the low-profile Keng isn’t known even to most media members, he was listed by Forbes magazine as the 23nd (sic) richest Filipino in 2010 with a net worth of $100 million… Now do you understand why Keng was so angry at the article that he pursued his libel case? What’s the use of your money if some media would destroy your reputation in such a cavalier manner?”

Pundits think that Ressa has, in fact, been given the “Al Capone Treatment” – also referred to as “Gotcha!” The Chicago mobster was arrested and imprisoned for tax evasion rather than for the many crimes, including multiple murder, that the FBI had long tried but failed to pin him down for. The tax case was what got Capone.


There are technical legal issues surrounding the cyber libel case, such as the claim of Ressa’s defense that the law had not yet been passed at the time the story came out. The prosecution, on the other hand, points out that the story was published again in 2014 when the cyber crime law was already in effect.

While I cannot claim to know enough about that law, I did notice that the Rappler story used definitive, accusatory language, citing intelligence reports. That, understandably, had to be proven in court. Eventually, the court decided that Rappler “did not offer a scintilla of proof” in the allegations against Keng and that it was not enough to quote an intelligence report.

The Philippines is considered among the most hazardous for media, a virtual war zone.

For this reason, crusading journalists like Maria Ressa should remember this piece of advice: In a war zone, watch out for mine fields. As Alex Esclamado would have put it, use the modifier “allege.” But there is no substitute for truth, accuracy and proof.

The cyber libel conviction carries with it a jail term of up to six years, although I understand that it is still subject to elevation to the Court of Appeals and, perhaps, the Supreme Court.

I recall two other Philippine journalists who were judged guilty by a court for libel.

Philippine Star’s Louie Beltran and Max Soliven. The complainant was President Cory Aquino herself. She charged the two for falsely reporting that she had hidden under her bed during one of the coup attempts against her government. The Supreme Court subsequently overturned the verdict.

Hopefully, Duterte’s term of office will have expired, before a final judgment is made, and that a more sympathetic administration will not object if the higher courts overturn the guilty verdict – just like the case of Beltran and Soliven. ([email protected])

  1. The problem with Ressa is that she only tells and comments on the “reality” she believes in, which might not be the absolute truth. Each person has his own reality based on his profile, his experiences and the circle/world he belongs to. Ressa could only be speaking for herself, and not the Filipino people as a whole.

  2. What Ressa did was a personal attack against an innocent businessman. Not only did she write about Keng’s “connection” with CJ Corona, her Rappler also disseminated news dati saying Keng’s businesses are drug-related. Kung ako nasa position nung Keng, I will also file a libel case against Ressa and Rappler especially when I’m sure that there is no truth behind what they want the public to believe in.

  3. If press freedom for you people is just reading, watching or listening to news that favor you and your interests and beliefs, then it’s something else that you want! IBANG BAGAY! Do not sugarcoat your biases. Myghad naman!

  4. The president is not the complainant this time. She’s just talking about press freedom to call international media’s attention for sympathy. Well to be honest she’s just a joke in the philippines abused her rights used it in the wrong way tries to ruin or destroy a man who contributes a lot in the philippines now she’s facing consequences and blaming the government . The queen of fake news of the philippines Maria Ressa should be imprisoned

  5. Maria Ressa is not a credible media person here in the philippines. She is using her media platform rappler to make filipinos hate our government. She needs to go to jail!

  6. Maria ressa should be jailed for what she did! She and her fake news platform rappler is just ruining the loves of the filipinos. She doesnt deserve to be called filipino for what she is doing! Jail maria ressa now!

  7. This is an issue of distributing news without fact-checking, delivering of fake news, disinformation and propaganda. In other words, a mere case of bad journalism.

  8. Journalists are expected to be accurate and fair with their work. They should be upholding and practicing their Code of Ethics. I’ve been reading articles on Ressa’s case and I believe Keng has all the rights to sue her. If only she did her job right, then the “jail time” shouldn’t have taken place – considering that Rappler was given some time to take down articles of wrong accusations against Keng, the “the real victim” on what had happened.

  9. I personally agree that journalists should be the gatekeepers to information. But hating on tech companies because they are trying to spread news, believing they have taken over the media’s job? Isn’t that a little too selfish? If these companies could provide additional info that the public can read and understand, I don’t see anything wrong with it. But if they are “being paid” to create fake news, then isn’t it the journalists’ responsibility to disseminate more reports that are fact-checked?

  10. Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. Journalists should weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting information. These are stated in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics… I personally do not believe that Ressa have executed these properly.

  11. Oh, Ressa! Are you happy now? At least you got awarded before being put in prison hahahaha! I just do not see the direct connection of your criminal charges especially your cyber libel case with your claims of the government trying to silence people.

  12. If you really do research and try to dig deep through reports, you will notice that Keng’s statements are rarely published. Isn’t it weird that both sides (Ressa and Keng) do not have equal opportunities to express their thoughts and sentiments on the issue? If you Google news about this controversial cyber libel case, you will start to question why not a lot of details about Keng were written. Not sure but it feels like a propaganda of concealing a certain truth from the public.

  13. I just don’t understand why other people insist that the government used Keng to “threaten” Rappler. Keng is a private person and a rich businessman. I don’t think he needs to be used by the government. He has always been one of the top billionaires of the country — years before the current administration. The “fake news” was also published in 2012 (Aquino administration) so I don’t see any connection between Ressa’s case or conviction and the PH gov’t. ???? Probably just another false accusation by Rappler which seems to love spreading wrong info.

  14. If the media cannot even give us news reports that are fair, objective, accurate, well-researched and fact-checked, then who or what will provide these to us? What is funny and sad at the same time is that some journalists choose to distort other people’s images and manipulate information in exchange of money or fame.

  15. The fact that more news articles are on Ressa’s side shows that the media industry may become biased if they want to. So does this mean that journalists are being selective in reporting? Not to mention that Rappler refused to inform the public about Keng’s side of the issue.

  16. No to fake news, si maria ressa nanggugulo lang yan sa pilipinas ayaw niya sa intsik e bat yung pagmamay ari ng rappler foreigner din? sinong mga bansa ang gusto masira ang pilipinas diba yung mga nagfifinance sa rappler?

  17. Accuracy, brevity and clarity are the ABCs of good journalism. In Rappler CEO Maria Ressa’s case, she failed to deliver correct and fair information. Whatever her reason is, we do not know for sure. Though it makes me wonder if it has something to do with political stances and/or biases.

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