Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa and former writer-researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. can apply for probation following their conviction for a cyber libel case, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Tuesday.
“I caution, of course, Maria Ressa and Mr. Santos that their penalty is actually subject to probation,” Roque, who has served as a libel defense lawyer himself, told CNN Philippines’ The Source.
“Walang kulong ‘yan (there’s no prison time there). If they want, they can just apply for probation and they can be scot-free. But when they appeal, and if they lose their appeal, then they have to serve time,” he added.
Rappler’s legal camp earlier said it will file an appeal against the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46’s Monday ruling, which sentenced both journalists to up to six years in jail for violating the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.
The case stemmed from a 2012 Rappler investigative article which reported on businessman Wilfredo Keng’s alleged connection to illegal activities.
Roque, upon reading the decision, said he found no defense evidence offered by Rappler to prove there was no malice in the process of crafting the article.
“I was surprised that there was also no defense evidence offered to prove the absence of malice…They only presented two witnesses and there was really no witness that took the stand to say that they went out of their way to verify their facts,” he said, adding Rappler’s camp could have “gotten public records” on Keng’s case to prove the accounts.
Opposition groups, human rights advocates, and netizens earlier slammed the decision in the high-profile case, saying how the Philippines’ press freedom is set to suffer a blow.
As Ressa’s guilty verdict hogged international headlines, among those who voiced support for her was former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Maria Ressa was convicted in the Philippines yesterday for doing her job. As Amal Clooney wrote, the message to other journalists is ‘Keep quiet, or you’ll be next,'” Clinton said on Twitter.
“We must fiercely protest attacks on the press. They are attacks on democracy,” she added.
Rappler, for its part, said the ruling “has made the space for a free press, free speech, and free expression even tighter and narrower.”
Roque, however, reiterated that the conviction was not politically motivated, stressing that the case was filed by a private complainant. He earlier noted that President Rodrigo Duterte supports free speech and press freedom in the country.