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Philippine Journalist's Conviction Called A Blow To Press Freedom

NOEL KING, HOST:

A court in the Philippines has found a prominent journalist guilty of cyber libel. Maria Ressa is the CEO and co-founder of an online news portal called Rappler. And some people say this is blatant intimidation of the media. NPR's Julie McCarthy has been following this story. Hey, Julie.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hi there.

KING: Tell me about Maria Ressa. Who is she?

MCCARTHY: Maria Ressa is an award-winning journalist - in fact, she was the Time's person of the year in 2018 - who went after the government. Now, in the Philippines, the press is under huge pressure from a hostile government. And prosecutors went after Ressa using a law that is specifically aimed at publishing online, which is where her news operation exists. Rappler reported on a businessman, suggesting that he had links to human trafficking. The government argued it was libelous.

Ressa's message after the verdict against her to Filipinos who were listening was protect your rights. Here she is speaking at a Rappler online forum just after the hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA RESSA: I appeal again - don't be afraid. Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen.

KING: She mentions your rights as a Filipino citizen, which makes me wonder, where is President Rodrigo Duterte in all of this?

MCCARTHY: Well, he makes no secret about his antipathy toward the media and Ressa. Her news outfit has done extensive coverage of his administration, especially close attention to his violent drug war. And this case is only one of a half a dozen that they've charged Ressa and Rappler with. The government has hit them with tax evasion and illegally obtaining foreign funding. Duterte came to office telling journalists, you're not immune to assassination. Now, that's a chilling remark.

And the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Sixteen have been killed in the past four years, usually unsolved murders. But this libel case is being treated as a sort of emblem for press freedom under assault across the globe. But the government and the court maintained this is not about press freedom. It's a case of libel.

KING: And are people there buying it?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, many Filipinos are distracted by the worst economic downturn in 30 years, the COVID pandemic. But there was wall-to-wall coverage of this verdict in the Philippines.

The Press Freedom Defense Fund struck a chord that you heard rights groups echo. And they said that, you know, there are many at this hour wondering who will be next. And they urged Duterte to carefully weigh the consequences of his treatment of the media. And Human Rights Watch Asia Director Phil Robertson called it a dire day for press freedom in the Philippines. Here he is.

PHIL ROBERTSON: If this was a civil libel case where he was suing for damages, saying that you've damaged my reputation, then we wouldn't have much to say about it. But the issue of a journalist going to prison for something they wrote is fundamentally problematic.

KING: So what happens to Maria Ressa now?

MCCARTHY: Well, she's free on bail, pending appeal. But the judge gave her what's called an indeterminate sentence, with six months minimum up to six years maximum if the conviction holds. Essentially, you get paroled once you serve six months. But she looked extraordinarily calm in the face of prison. She told the graduating class at Princeton last month that she had embraced her fear and defeated it.

KING: NPR's Julie McCarthy. Julie, thank you.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "2:3:5") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.