Last February 13 at 5pm, Rappler Founder and CEO Maria Ressa was arrested by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) for charges of violating Sec. 4(C)(4) of Republic Act (RA) 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. Despite being arrested beyond working hours, making it harder for Ressa to find a court, she attempted to post bail through the Pasay City night court. The judge of the said court, however, turned down the bail despite having the power to grant it under Rule 114, Section 17 of the Rules of Court. With this, Ressa is forced to spend the night behind bars.
The article in question that led to Ressa’s arrest was one published in May 2012—four months before RA 10175, the very law that put her in jail, would be enacted. While both were published in the same year, the ex post facto principle stipulated in the 1987 Constitution provides that laws should be applied prospectively, not retroactively. In other words, laws cannot be applied to events that happened before said laws were enacted.
Apart from the said principle, under Article 90 of the Revised Penal Code, the prescriptive period of libel cases is one year. This has already lapsed when the complaint was filed against Ressa in 2018, six years after the article was published.
The Department of Justice (DOJ), however, thought otherwise. In their resolution, they argued that while RA 10175 could not cover the initial 2012 publication of the article, the February 2014 revision was within its scope. This, according to them, would be covered under the “multiple publication rule,” which they explained in their resolution as “a single defamatory statement, if published several times, gives rise to as many offenses as there are publications.” As for the issue on the prescriptive period, the DOJ pointed out that cyber libel was different from libel, and that RA 3326, which covers prescriptions of offenses punished by special laws, extends this to 12 years, which covers the revised article in 2014.
Rappler refuted DOJ’s arguments, arguing that cyber libel in RA 10175 is no different from the libel stipulated in the Revised Penal Code. Citing the Supreme Court’s resolution on Disini, Jr. v. The Secretary of Justice, “But, again, online libel is not a new crime. It is essentially the old crime of libel found in the 1930 Revised Penal Code and transposed to operate in the cyberspace.” As the ruling had found no difference between the two, the one-year prescription period still applies, they argued. It is important to note that the mass of jurisprudence that secures the freedom of expression from its reach applies to online libel. Any vagueness in its provisions has long been settled.
The situation did not end with the arrest. A Rappler journalist published accounts of an NBI member threatening members of Rappler for merely documenting the event, saying “we’ll go after you, too”. This is directly insinuating an attack against the press to carry on with their duties. In a video circulating online, a reporter can be heard asking the officer for justification on why she cannot record the proceeding, to which he responded “because I’m saying so.” The officer should have addressed the situation without resorting to threats as it is his job to serve the public—not overwhelm and intimidate.
The circumstances surrounding Ressa’s arrest are suspicious at best, a threat to press freedom at the least. This case against her is a prime example of how journalists are treated in a country where the press is being hounded by an administration unafraid to use its power and political will to go after its critics. Knowledge is power, and it is the media’s job to disseminate it to the general population. The people have the right to know what is happening for this is what opens their eyes to the anomalies of its institutions. This is exactly what those afraid of the truth try to detain—they know that the day the press is set free is the day that the people begin to see them for who they truly are.
It is the duty of media practitioners to not only entertain, but also to inform and to criticize. A government’s regard for the freedom of the press reflects how much it values the people’s voice. It is the blood and soul of a democracy to be able to express freely without fear of condemnation from authority. Ressa, in her official statement, said, “No amount of legal cases, black propaganda, and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line.” The LaSallian is one with journalists who fearlessly go after stories despite the risks that come with it, with the sole intention of opening eyes and upholding the rights and freedoms of the people.