Sydney PEN joins with PEN International and the Philippine PEN Center in expressing its gravest concern over the recent conviction of journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyber libel for a 2012 article. Questions of constitutionality aside, this action further undermines the already dwindling democratic space in which free media and civil society operate.
Maria Ressa is one of the Philippines’ most well-known free speech advocates, having set up the multi-award winning news website Rappler with three other women journalists in 2012. It soon became a source of exposés of corruption and human rights abuses, including the execution of thousands of Filipinos in the war against drugs. She is currently fighting the prospect of the shutdown of Rappler.
Ressa faces other libel cases, as well as criminal investigations into allegedly illegal foreign ownership of her companies and investigations into tax returns. Altogether these charges, believed to be politically motivated, could lead to around 100 years in prison. Maria Ressa was named a TIME person of the year in 2018 and spoke at the Global Conference for Media Freedom organised by the Canadian and British Governments in the UK in 2019. She is the author of two books on the rise of terrorism in Southeast Asia. And she was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.
“Maria Ressa is a brave journalist who has reported fearlessly from across Southeast Asia during tumultuous times,” writes Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
“To convict her on grounds of criminal libel years after the incident during a pandemic is nothing but another cowardly way the authorities are seeking to intimidate media freedom in the Philippines. That Maria and her former colleague Reynaldo can appeal is a matter of comfort. That she is being tried at all shows the distance the Philippines has travelled from the promise of democracy that was born with the end of the Martial Law. We were privileged when she spoke to the Assembly of Delegates at the PEN Congress in Manila in 2019, when she spoke eloquently about the need to remain vigilant in defending our freedoms. We are dismayed by the verdict against one of the truly courageous journalists of our time and urge the Philippines to change its law which threatens the media and take immediate steps to stop the persecution of Maria and her colleague Reynaldo.”
In solidarity, we stand by the principles of free expression and the unhampered flow of critical information.
We urge all citizens to uphold their right to free speech and equal protection under the law, and for all governments to protect these rights at all times.
Dr Sandra Symons
Joint President of Sydney PEN