Libel verdict due for Philippine journalist critical of Duterte

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa faces a possible prison sentence when the verdict in her libel trial is handed down Monday in a case she and watchdogs say is aimed at silencing critics of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Ressa, 56, and her news site Rappler have been the target of legal action and probes after publishing stories critical of Duterte's policies, including his drug war that has killed thousands.

Monday's verdict in Manila will decide a trial that stems from a businessman's 2017 complaint over a Rappler story five years earlier about his alleged ties to a then-judge on the nation's top court.

Ressa, who Time magazine named as a Person of the Year in 2018, did not write the article and government investigators initially dismissed the businessman's allegation.

But state prosecutors later filed charges against her and Reynaldo Santos, the former Rappler journalist who wrote it, under a controversial cyber crime statute aimed at online offences such as stalking and child pornography.

The law they are accused of violating took effect in September 2012, months after the article was published.

But prosecutors say Rappler's typographical correction to the story in 2014 to change "evation" to "evasion" was a substantial modification and the article was thus covered by the law.

"I've been the cautionary tale: be quiet or you're next... that's part of the reason why I have been targeted," Ressa, a co-founder of Rappler and a former CNN journalist, told AFP in an exclusive interview last week.

"It's a chilling effect... not just to me and to Rappler, but to journalists and to anyone who asks critical questions."

Ressa said she could face up to seven years behind bars if convicted by the judge. A previously cited figure of 12 years was due to her legal team's differing interpretations of the law, she said.

Duterte's government has said the case is not politically motivated and that authorities must enforce the law, even against journalists.

- 'Fake news outlet' -

But rights groups and press advocates say the libel charge along with a series of tax cases against Rappler and a government move to strip the news site of its licence amount to state harassment.

"If Maria is convicted and locked up for doing her work, the message to other journalists and independent voices is clear: Keep quiet, or you'll be next," human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who is part of Ressa's legal team, wrote in The Washington Post on Friday.

Amnesty International said the "attacks" against Rappler were part of a wider government crackdown on media freedom in the Philippines.

Ressa's verdict comes just over a month after government regulators forced off the air ABS-CBN, the nation's top broadcaster, after years of threats by Duterte to shut down the network.

Both Rappler and ABS-CBN have reported extensively on Duterte's anti-drugs campaign in which police have gunned down alleged dealers and users in operations condemned by rights groups.

Some of the crackdown's highest-profile critics have wound up behind bars, including Senator Leila de Lima, who is serving three years in jail on drug charges she insists were fabricated to silence her.

In 2018 Duterte denounced Rappler as a "fake news outlet" and subsequently banned Ressa and her colleagues from his public engagements.