‘Respect court decision vs. Ressa,’ Roque urges

By Genalyn Kabiling 

The conviction of Rappler head Maria Ressa for cyber libel should be respected even as President Duterte continues to support freedom of the press, Malacañang declared Monday.

A Manila court has sentenced Ressa and a former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. to at least six years in jail based on a cyber libel complaint filed by a businessman. The two were reportedly allowed to post bail pending an appeal.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque (OPS / MANILA BULLETIN) Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque

"Ang unang-unang paninindigan ng Pangulo ay ito ay isang kaso na nilitis ng ating hukuman, respetuhin natin ang desiyon ng hukuman (The President's first belief is this is a case tried by the court so let us respect the decision of the court)," Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said during a Palace press briefing.

Roque maintained that the President has never been involved in any attempt to curtail press freedom in the country.

He said the President has not filed a libel case against any journalist during his many years in public service. He said Duterte believes that government officials should not be "onion-skinned" and instead must face criticisms from the public, especially from the media.

"Paulit-ulit na sinabi ni Presidente na ni minsan na hindi siya naghain ng kasong libel sa kahit kaninong nabubwisit siya peryodista. Naniniwala siya sa malayang pag-iisip at pananalita (The President has repeatedly said he has never filed a libel against journalists even if he finds some annoying. He believes in free thinking and free speech)," he said.

In highlighting the President's support for media freedom, Roque pointed out that Duterte supported Davao-based radio broadcast Alexander Adonis who faced a libel case in court in 2007. He recalled that Adonis was convicted following a libel case filed by then Davao Rep. Prospero Nograles, an erstwhile political rival of Mayor Duterte.

He said the President continued his support to Adonis when he challenged the country's libel law before the United Nations committee on human rights. The UN body eventually ruled that a prison term of a journalist constituted a violation of freedom of expression.

"Suportado ni Presidente ang malayang pananalita at malayang pamamahayag. Sana po malinaw 'yan (The President supports free speech and free press. I hope this is clear),” Roque said.

Roque also pointed out that the country's cyber law was passed during the previous administration. During the Aquino administration, he said the Supreme Court also ruled that libel is not a constitutionally protected speech and the government has an obligation to protect private individuals from defamation.

"Hindi po Presidente ang nasa likod sa panunupil diumano ng malayaang pananalita at pamamahayag. 'Yan ang desisyon ng ating Korte Supreme sa panahon pa ni Presidente Noynoy Aquino (The President is not behind the alleged curtailment of free speech and free press. That was the decision of Supreme Court during the time of President Noynoy Aquino)," he said.

Roque also rejected Ressa's claim that her conviction was supposedly a cautionary tale for the Philippine media. "Walang basehan 'yan (That has no basis). She's barking (up) the wrong tree," he said, citing the President's record of protecting the free press.

Roque said they expect the government critics to use Ressa's case to claim the Duterte administration is an enemy of press freedom.

Nonetheless, Roque said Ressa can avail of legal remedies to appeal her conviction in court. "We wish her the best," he said.

READ MORE: Manila court convicts Ressa, former Rappler researcher of cyber libel