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‘Embrace your fear’: Philippines’ Maria Ressa faces libel verdict | News



Filipino journalist Maria Ressa has worked as a foreign correspondent under repressive regimes in Indonesia under Suharto and in China under Deng Xiaoping, but now, in her native Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, she faces one of her toughest-ever tests. 

“We are at the precipice between a democracy and a dictatorship. This is it,” Ressa, head of the news website Rappler, told Al Jazeera, as she prepared for the verdict on Monday of a cyberlibel case filed against her – the first of at least eight charges she is facing since Duterte came to power in 2016.


At a time when the Philippines is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, providing Duterte the chance to declare a national emergency while also nudging Congress to fast track the passage of an anti-terror bill and forcing the shutdown of the country’s biggest TV network, the need “to hold the line” on press freedom and keep the government accountable has become even more urgent, she said.

“If we lose these battles, then the Philippines will fundamentally change,” she told Al Jazeera. 

The verdict on the cyberlibel case is due at 8.30am (00:30 GMT). Ressa said that she is “trying to be mentally prepared so that whatever happens, nothing will be a surprise or a shock.”

Duterte vs Rappler: Media on notice in the Philippines – The Listening Post

The cyberlibel case against Ressa and her publication stems from a 2017 complaint of a businessman over a Rappler story published in 2012, before the cybercrime law even existed. The businessman said his reputation was “defamed” when he was linked to the then-Supreme Court Chief Justice, who was later removed from office through an impeachment.

Initially, in 2018, the libel complaint was dismissed in 2018, but government investigators under the office of President Duterte, quickly reversed the decision and recommended that Ressa and the reporter, Reynaldo Santos Jr, be prosecuted. Prosecutors said they were only following the law.

But around the same time, Duterte had sought to close Rappler for alleged foreign ownership and tax evasion – allegations the news organisation denied. Rappler had earned Duterte’s ire for its relentless reporting on Duterte’s war on drugs; a signature policy that has left thousands of people dead. It also exposed a pro-Duterte network circulating alleged fake news on social media.

‘Weaponising the law’ 

A cyberlibel conviction in the Philippines carries a possible imprisonment of as long as seven years. But it is a bailable offence, allowing those who have been convicted to remain out of jail while the case is under appeal.

In a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the government should “stop weaponising the law” against Ressa and other journalists and media organisations in the country.

Maria Ressa

Ressa (centre) with her lawyer, Theodore Te, leave a court in Manila in December after attending a trial on the cyberlibel charge filed against her and her organisation, Rappler [File: Mark R Cristino/EPA]

NUJP hopes the the court “will see this case for what it is, part of this vindictive government’s ruthless campaign to silence or intimidate independent and critical Philippine media.”

Aside from Rappler, Duterte has also targeted and forced the closure of ABS-CBN, the largest media company in the Philippines, while the owners of the country’s largest newspaper, Philippine Daily Inquirer, were forced to sell the publication to a Duterte ally after publishing news reports and editorials critical of the mounting deaths.

‘Absurd case’

Carlos Conde, of Human Rights Watch in the Philippines, said the case against Rappler “should never have been filed to begin with.”

“The absurdity of this particular case against Maria Ressa – prosecutors deemed the story in question ‘republished’ after Rappler corrected one word that was misspelled – suggests the desperation of those behind it to silence her and Rappler,” Conde said in a statement to Al Jazeera.

Rappler had acknowledged that it made the spelling correction in 2014, after the cybercrime legislation became a law. But even then, it said that a complaint should have been filed within the one year, or by 2015, as required by the law. The complainant only filed the case in 2017. 

Maria Ressa: War on Truth | Witness

By exploiting “an absurd technicality” the government’s case against Ressa “illustrates the lengths the regime would go”, to go after its perceived enemies, Conde added.

Ressa, for her part, said the Duterte should not be so defensive when journalists point out weaknesses in his government “that could be made better”.

The former CNN correspondent added that she remains confident that the Philippine media “will weather” the threats adding that “history is on the side of the journalists, on the side of our constitution.”

‘A matter of principle’

Since being targeted by the Philippine government and subjected to several arrests, Ressa, who was named in Time as part of the 2018 Time Magazine Person of the Year, has travelled extensively abroad. But she said it never crossed her mind not to return to the Philippines. 

“I am not just one reporter, and even then, it’s a matter of principle for me,” she said. “I run Rappler. I helped create this organisation. So, it wasn’t a choice. Because in the end, I am not about to let the government pound me into silence.”

The case has become a rallying point for media freedom advocates.

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement to Al Jazeera that the Philippines “has a chance to restore a modicum of press freedom” by acquitting Ressa.

Duterte’s ‘fake news’ crackdown aims to ‘silence dissent’

“Her conviction and imprisonment would be a disaster for Philippine press freedom and democracy,” Crispin said, adding that if Ressa is jailed, Duterte “will be viewed as public enemy number one by press freedom and rights advocacy groups worldwide.”

An insider in the judiciary told Al Jazeera that proving “malice”, which is a requirement for conviction, is “difficult, as it is a state of mind”, and that Ressa, Santos, and Rappler would probably be cleared. On the rare occasion that guilt is proven, the court usually imposes a fine instead of a jail term, the source said.

Ressa said that given the current political climate in the country, she is “not confident of anything…but I am hopeful.”

At this point, she said, there is only one way to deal with the cases thrown against her and that is “to deal with my fear.

“I embrace my fear.”

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Top New York state lawmaker says Cuomo ‘must resign’ | Politics News



Pressure is mounting on Governor Andrew Cuomo to step down amid allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing increased pressure to step down, after he was accused by several women of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour.

In a statement shared by local media on Sunday, New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said accounts of alleged wrongdoing against Cuomo are “drawing away from the business of government”.

“New York is still in the midst of this pandemic and is still facing the societal, health and economic impacts of it. We need to govern without daily distraction. For the good of the state, Governor Cuomo must resign,” she said.

Several women have come forward in recent weeks to accuse Cuomo of sexual harassment and misconduct, including inappropriate comments of a sexual nature, as well as unwanted sexual advances.

Cuomo, who drew national attention for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, has also been criticised after US media outlets reported that his top aides obscured the true number of people killed by the coronavirus in the state’s nursing homes.

“We have allegations about sexual harassment, a toxic work environment, the loss of credibility surrounding the COVID-19 nursing home data and questions about the construction of a major infrastructure project,” Stewart-Cousins said in her statement.

Cuomo has also faced criticism after US media reported his aides obscured the true number of coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes in New York state [File: Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo]

State Assembly Speaker Carl E Heastie also spoke out on Sunday about the allegations, which he described as “deeply disturbing” and having “no place whatsoever in government, the workplace or anywhere else”.

“I too share the sentiment of Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins regarding the Governor’s ability to continue to lead this state. We have many challenges to address, and I think it is time for the Governor to seriously consider whether he can effectively meet the needs of the people of New York,” Heastie said in a statement, as reported by local media.

While Cuomo at first denied any wrongdoing, he said on February 28 that he “never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm”.

“I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended,” he said in a statement at that time.

New York is still in the midst of this pandemic… We need to govern without daily distraction. For the good of the state, Governor Cuomo must resign

Andrea Stewart-Cousins, New York State Senate Majority Leader

Last week, he apologised and said he would cooperate with an investigation into his conduct, but would not resign.

He reiterated that position on Sunday, telling reporters during a conference call that it would be “anti-democratic” for him to step down.

“They don’t override the people’s will, they don’t get to override elections,” said Cuomo, when asked about members of his own party calling for his resignation. “I was elected by the people of New York state. I wasn’t elected by politicians.”

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