Rappler journalist Ressa launches defence in Philippine libel case

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa listens to the media outside a regional trial court in Manila on Dec 16, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine journalist Maria Ressa said on Monday (Dec 16) that she would not be silenced as she launched her defence against a libel charge that press advocates call an attempt to curb her news site's critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Her site Rappler has written extensively and often critically on Mr Duterte's policies, including his deadly drugs war that rights groups say may amount to crimes against humanity.

"I can go to jail for 12 years for this (case), that is the maximum sentence," she told reporters outside court after the hearing, noting government investigators had initially dismissed the case.

"From track record, you can see the political goals to shut Rappler up... but we haven't shut up yet," said Ressa, who is free on bail.

Besides the libel case, Ressa and Rappler have been hit with a string of criminal charges in the span of roughly a year, prompting allegations that the authorities are targeting her and her team for their work.

Ressa, named Time's Person of the Year in 2018 for her journalism, did not testify in court.

The case centres on a Rappler report from 2012 about a businessman's alleged ties to a then judge of the nation's top court.

Government investigators initially dismissed the businessman's 2017 complaint about the article, but state prosecutors later decided to file charges.

The legal underpinning of the charge is a controversial "cybercrime law" aimed at online offences ranging from hacking and Internet fraud to child pornography.

In court on Monday, Ressa's defence team highlighted investigators' initial decision not to pursue the case, and her insulation from Rappler's daily news decisions.

"As an executive editor, she does not really edit," Chay Hofilena, a Rappler investigative journalist, told the court.

The government has repeatedly said the case has nothing to do with politics, adding that no one is above the law.

However, Mr Duterte has, in speeches, lashed out at Rappler and other critical media outfits, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and broadcaster ABS-CBN.

He threatened to go after their owners over alleged unpaid taxes or block the network's franchise renewal application.

Rights monitor Reporters Without Borders ranked the Philippines at 134 out of 178 countries on its annual "World Press Freedom" index this year, when at least three journalists were killed "most likely by agents working for local politicians".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.