“Are We a Democracy, or Not?”

Maria Ressa, Rappler CEO and subject of the award-winning documentary, A Thousand Cuts, ‘bleeds’ out this question as she and Reynaldo Santos Jr. emerged from a Philippine courtroom on June 15, convicted on a dubious charge of “cyber libel.”

Palpable Tension

On June 20, Ramona S. Diaz’ ‘A Thousand Cuts’ film, which was awarded Best International Feature at the Doc Edge 2020 Festival in New Zealand, recounts the growing tension between the Philippine government under President Rodrigo Duterte, and the press — particularly, news website, Rappler, under the helm of Maria Ressa.

“Ressa is a fraud. Give us time. It’s too early for you to enjoy yung mga award, award mo. You are a fraud. We are just compiling. Some day in bold letters, we will show your incongruity. You are a fraud,” said President Rodrigo Duterte as he delivered a message to the media and its reportage on corruption in the government’s response to COVID-19, late Tuesday, July 7.

The timeline of the film focuses on the 2019 Senatorial campaign — following closely the particular campaigns of then Philippine National Police Chief Bato de la Rosa, former entertainer and Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, and Samira Gutoc, member of the opposition coalition, Otso Diretso. As ‘Cuts’ follows the campaign trail, it reveals the tense socio-political climate surrounding the election, the controversial drug war, the suspected weaponization of the internet — elements that intensify the palpable tension between government and media as felt by the viewers.

Diaz’ edgy and kinetic narrative is interspersed with eye-opening interviews and footage that give a rare glimpse into the grit and humanity of the main characters in the narrative. Most affecting are the interviews and footage that follow journalists into their line of work – behind-the-scene shoots, walks into the dark alleys of Manila, and firsthand accounts of journalists witnessing shootings and stumbling upon bloodied bodies. 

(A Reporter’s Work/ Photo: athousandcuts.film

Therein lies the source of tension in the film. Ressa narrates, “In 2016, Rappler fought two levels of impunity — impunity in the drug war. We put names and faces on the people being killed. We demanded the government be held accountable.” This, she attests, began the attack on the media through disinformation networks – the weaponization of the internet. In a speech shown in the film, Ressa explains further, “what we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts of our democracy.” 

Maria Ressa – subject of documentary film, A Thousand Cuts/ Photo: Rappler

A thousand cuts against Rappler and Ressa

As of the early release of the documentary, 11 cases had been filed against Ressa, Rappler’s directors and staff. By January 30, 2020 the cases had been reduced to 7. 

According to Rappler:

  • In October 2019, a Pasig trial court judge remanded to government prosecutors two previous cases against Ressa and Rappler’s directors, saying they were filed in “due haste.” Trial for these cases – now consolidated into one – was suspended.
  • In November 2019, a Quezon City prosecutor dismissed a libel complaint against Ressa and reporter Rambo Talambong for lack of probable cause.
Rappler office/ Photo: Rappler

Enumerated below are the cases filed against Rappler and Maria Ressa, as of January 30, 2020:

Securities and Exchange Commission vs Rappler (January 2018)

The SEC said Rappler violated the constitutional Foreign Equity Restriction in Mass Media because of funds coming from Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder and entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar. SEC voided the Omidyar Philippine Depositary Receipt (PDR) and revoked Rappler’s Certificate of Incorporation. 

Tax cases against Maria Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corporation at CTA and at Pasig Court (November 2018)

Upon approval of the The Department of Justice (DOJ), the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) pursued 4 counts of tax violations against Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corporation at the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA). These were pursued on the theory that the PDRs that the SEC had questioned generated taxable income that Rappler Holdings Corporation did not declare. 

A 5th count of tax violation was filed by prosecutors at the Pasig Regional Trial Court (RTC) based on the argument of the DOJ that the 5th did not meet the minimum amount required for CTA cases.

BIR administrative proceedings

Following the allegations in the criminal cases filed at the CTA and Pasig RTC, the BIR is determining whether Rappler should be assessed for tax deficiencies. 

Allegations of Violation against the Anti-Dummy Law and the Securities Code

Former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II ordered the NBI to investigate Rappler for further possible violations, stemming from the original complaint on Rappler’s issuance of PDRs.

In September 2018, the Pasig City prosecutor subpoenaed Rappler Inc’s board of directors at the time of the issuance of the PDRs – Manuel Ayala, Nico Jose Nolledo, Glenda Gloria, James Bitanga, Felicia Atienza, James Velasquez – as well as then-corporate secretary, Jose Maria Hofileña. 

On March 26, 2019, the Pasig Prosecutor’s Office charged the directors with violation of the Anti Dummy Law and the Securities Regulation Code.

Libel complaint against Ressa and reporter Rambo Talabong

Former Interior Undersecretary, John Castriciones filed a libel complaint at the Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office against reporter Rambo Talabong. Talambong had written a series of reports on disputes within the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) in 2017.

Castriciones, now Agrarian Secretary, also filed a libel complaint against Ressa.

CONVICTED: Cyber Libel Case against Ressa and former writer, Rey Santos Jr.

On June 15, 2020, Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 46 convicted Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr over cyber libel charges under the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Both were sentenced to between six months and six years imprisonment. According to Rappler, Ressa and Santos will not have to immediately go to jail because the conviction is appealable all the way to the Supreme Court. They have each been ordered to pay P200,000 in moral damages and another P200,000 in exemplary damages. If the conviction becomes final, each will have to pay P400,000 in damages.

“The verdict against Maria Ressa highlights the ability of the Philippines’ abusive leader to manipulate the laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices whatever the ultimate cost to the country.” 

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch

In October 2017, businessman Wilfredo Keng filed a cyber libel case against Ressa, Santos and Rappler concerning a May 2012 article linking him to the late Former Chief Justice Renato Corona. The article also mentioned an intelligence report that tied the businessman to illegal activity. Although the Cybercrime Prevention Act did not exist and was enacted months after the article was published, the courts accepted the lawsuit, accepting the article was “republished” in February 2014 after a spelling error was corrected.

Second arrest of Maria Ressa | Photo: NY Times

This is the first of the cases filed that has reached a verdict. Rappler Inc (which was originally included in the complaint), however, was found to have no legal liability.

Many have strongly spoken out against the conviction. Washington-based National Press Club Michael Freedman and NPC Journalism Institute President Angela Greiling Keane in a joint statement said, “To silence the press is to silence the people, silence accountability and silence truth.” The NPC also announced on Friday, June 26, that it “has selected Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa as the recipient of its international 2020 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award”, as one “who bravely pushed to disclose the truth in trying circumstances.”

The Philippine government has maintained that the verdict only proves that the ‘judicial system is working’. 

PCOO Secretary Martin Andanar also stressed that there is no “attack on press freedom nor on freedom of speech, but an adherence to the rule of law and due process prescribed in our democratic constitution.”

Read: more information and updates on the cases faced by Rappler and Maria Ressa.

This is not the Philippines I knew.”

In the film, Ressa heaves a big sigh after saying these words. Speaking to reporters after her second arrest upon arrival at NAIA after a 14-hour flight, she continues, “This is not the Philippines I voluntarily chose as my home country.” 

MANILA, PHILIPPINES – JUNE 15: Maria Ressa, editor and CEO of Rappler, speaks to reporters after being convicted for cyber libel at a regional trial court on June 15, 2020 in Manila, Philippines. A Manila court on Monday convicted Maria Ressa, veteran journalist and outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, for cyber libel, in a decision seen as a major blow to press freedom in the country. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Born in the Philippines and raised in the United States, the film gives a glimpse of the growing years of the woman we see today. A graduate of Princeton, she chose to return to the country of her birth as the Philippines transitioned into a new, hopeful era.

“The People Power revolt happened, not a shot was fired, and a government was changed. As a kid just coming out of school, and feeling the exuberance of that – I wanted to go back. This country was actively creating what the future was going to look like.”

In an article published by The Atlantic, Sheila Coronel writes, “I remember young Maria as a sharp reporter who asked probing questions and threw herself into her work…Maria was—and still is—in the words of a friend of ours, “Little Miss Sunshine,” an unfailing optimist and believer in democracy and the power of a free press. It was often difficult to convince her that some things were not possible.”

Coronel continues, “About 10 years ago, she told me she was setting up an online news site after leading the news and public-affairs division of the country’s biggest network. Before that, she was the Jakarta bureau chief for CNN. I was skeptical. Digital news start-ups had spotty success, I told her, and the Philippine media market was crowded. She proved me wrong.”

Little Miss Sunshine

The documentary ends with a feeling of uncertainty, bringing to a close the campaign journey – Samira Gutoc and the rest of the opposition fail to enter the Senate. Uson also fails in her bid, and de la Rosa wins his seat with 19 million votes. Ressa speaks to reporters, “It’s very clear that these elections were a referendum of sorts for President Duterte…an overwhelming mandate…on his popularity. I ask him to let the journalists do their jobs. That’s all we want to do.” She smiles politely, “Trabaho lang po, Mr. President (Just part of the job, Mr. President).” 

While Ressa admits that the “institution has morphed, the checks and balances – they’re bending to the man,” she gratefully speaks to her Rappler team, believing that, “I think our nation has our back.

Little Miss Sunshine/ Photo: Southeastasiaglobe.com

In Ressa’s article for Time magazine, she highlights the importance of the mission of independent journalism today– when decisions are being made without transparency. “Now more than ever, facts matter. Truth matters. Checks and balances matter. While emergency powers seem necessary during these extraordinary times, let’s not give up our hard-won freedoms. Getting them back may be even harder than taming a virus.”

Named TIME 2018 Person of the Year and included on TIME’s 2019 list of the 100 most influential people, Ressa said in her speech at the TIME 100 gala:

“My only crime is to be a journalist, to speak truth to power.”

Written By: Pamela Imperial
Edited By: Kristine Rioflorido

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