One story from the other side of the world has managed to bubble to the surface in America’s media over the endless noise that swamps the daily news cycle. It normally wouldn’t qualify as being more than a local news item were it not for the fact that it involves a journalist potentially being sent to jail, so other reporters from around the world need to pump up the volume in solidarity. The tale takes place in the Philippines and centers on Maria Ressa, the editor of online news outlet Rappler and one of her former reporters. The pair were found guilty of libel for publishing an article claiming that a wealthy businessman was involved in corruption, drug dealing, human trafficking and murder. Ressa faces up to six years in prison if she doesn’t prevail on appeal. But as I’ll address below, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone because she was facing a rigged system and a very corrupt government. (Associated Press)
An award-winning journalist critical of the Philippine president was convicted of libel and sentenced to jail Monday in a decision called a major blow to press freedom in an Asian bastion of democracy.
The Manila court found Maria Ressa, her online news site Rappler Inc. and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. guilty of libeling a wealthy businessman. The Rappler’s story on May 29, 2012, cited an unspecified intelligence report linking him to a murder, drug dealing, human trafficking and smuggling. The site’s lawyers disputed any malice and said the time limit for filing the libel complaint had passed.
“The decision for me is devastating because it says that Rappler is wrong,” Ressa said in a news conference after the decision was handed down. Her voice cracking, she appealed to journalists and Filipinos to continue fighting for their rights “and hold power to account.
I have no idea how much validity there was in the intelligence report that Rappler used as a source for the story or how guilty businessman Wilfredo Keng may have been, but this entire situation is simply beyond bizarre. First of all, the article was published in 2012, nearly a decade ago. Keng didn’t even file a suit over it until 2017, well after Ressa had made a name for herself as an outspoken critic of the current Duterte administration. There’s supposed to be a one-year statute of limitations for libel claims in the Philippines, but the courts seemed to conveniently find a way around that.
As I already said, none of this comes as much of a surprise to me. I spent a few brief periods of time living in the Philippines back in the late 70s and early 80s while serving in the Navy. I even managed to lean to speak some basic Tagalog by the time I left for good, though today I don’t think I remember enough of it to even order a beer. I can tell you from personal experience that the country the Associated Press describes as “an Asian bastion of democracy” has been incredibly corrupt since the beginning of the Third Republic, shortly after World War 2.
I was there during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos and can personally testify that both visiting sailors (including yours truly) and local citizens were regularly shaken down for “fines” by both civilian police and military patrols. Every business owner I ever spoke to said that they had to make protection payments to local law enforcement and government officials, and the corruption ran all the way up the line. The same woes have eventually come to plague virtually every administration from that period up to the present.
The United States tended to turn a blind eye to all of the rot at the core of the Philippines government back in the day because they were an important ally and the host of one of our largest military bases in that part of the Pacific. But crime and abuse were always rampant there and I don’t believe they’ve ever had an election in the modern era that hasn’t been decried by international observers as being “flawed” at best or “rigged” if we’re being honest. Their courts, unfortunately, aren’t much better, being filled with judges who are selected by the aforementioned corrupt officials. If you have money (like Wilfredo Keng) you can “purchase” plenty of justice for yourself. But I suspect that this was a case where Keng was just being used as a convenient vehicle to rid the President of a noisy critic.
Yes, the Philippines is “technically” a democracy because they hold elections and have all of the usual offices and trappings we associate with a democratic form of government. But democracy is only a thin veneer over the ugly reality. I realize that President Trump is a big fan of Rodrigo Duterte and the two speak highly of each other, but that doesn’t change the underbelly of their system. Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos are almost certainly going to wind up behind bars and they’ll be lucky if that’s the worst that happens to them, frankly.