MANILA: Philippine prosecutors said Wednesday they will file a libel charge carrying up to 12 years in prison against journalist Maria Ressa, who leads a news website that has clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.
The case – under a controversial cybercrime law penalising online libel – adds to legal pressure on Ressa and her site Rappler, which has already been hit with tax evasion charges that could shutter the outlet and put her behind bars.
Ressa, who was named a Time Magazine “Person of the Year” in 2018 for her journalistic work, slammed the fresh case as a new front of “harassment” intended to silence her website.
Rappler has drawn the administration’s ire since publishing reports critical of Duterte’s signature anti-drug crackdown that has killed thousands of alleged users and pushers since 2016.
However, the new case against Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos, Jr stems from a 2012 report written about a businessman’s alleged ties to a then-judge on the nation’s top court.
While investigators initially dismissed the businessman’s 2017 complaint about the article, the case was subsequently forwarded to prosecutors for their consideration.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told AFP on Wednesday the case would be filed in court “very soon”.
Duterte has lashed out at other critical media outfits, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and broadcaster ABS-CBN.
He had threatened to go after their owners over alleged unpaid taxes or block the network’s franchise renewal application.
Some of the drug crackdown’s highest-profile critics have wound up behind bars, including Senator Leila de Lima, who was jailed on drug charges she insists were fabricated to silence her.
Ressa, already on bail for the tax charges, said the new case lacks a sound legal basis.
“It is ridiculous, of course, it is harassment,” she told AFP. “The story was published seven years ago, four months before the (cybercrime) law was enacted.”
The law that forms the foundation of the case takes aim at various online offences, including computer fraud and hacking.
Nonoy Espina, chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said the case would set an ominous precedent.
“This is an extremely dangerous proposition since it essentially means anyone can be made liable for anything and everything they posted even way before the Cybercrime Law,” he added.
Guevarra denied the government’s decision to pursue the case was an effort to put pressure on the website.
“We do not inject politics in our work. No one tells us how to go about doing our job. We give contending parties equal opportunities to present their side,” Guevarra told AFP.
Under the tax case, the government accuses Rappler Holdings Corp., Ressa and the site’s accountant of failing to pay taxes on 2015 bond sales that it alleges netted gains of 162.5 million pesos (US$3 million).
The Philippine justice system is notoriously overburdened and slow, with even minor cases taking years to be judged.