“When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.” — Christopher Dodd
NEW YORK CITY — Rappler’s Maria Ressa and her writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. have posted a bail of P100,000 each before the Manila Regional Trial Court for their temporary liberty in a cyber libel case the Department of Justice (DOJ) had “revived” for an on-line article written in 2012 that “maligned” businessman Wilfredo Keng.
In Iloilo City in the Philippines in 1999 or 20 years ago, I posted a total bail of P380,000 for the incredible 38 counts of libel cases filed by former Councilor Ramon Cua Locsin and the late Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) revenue district officer Godofredo San Jose Jr.
Our late publisher Marcos “Mark” Villalon and columnist Wenceslao Mateo Jr., my co-accused, posted the same amount each.
The libel cases first stemmed from an article written by Mr. Mateo in Sun.Star Iloilo Daily about Locsin’s purported “conflict of interest” in relation to the purchase of a lot for the relocation of several displaced squatters in Brgy. So-oc, Molo district.
In Mr. Mateo’s analysis, Locsin’s firm appeared to gain benefit once the purchase would materialize.
Instead of disputing Mr. Mateo or writing a “letter-to-the editor” like what other forlorn public officials normally do in a similar situation, Locsin filed a libel case.
Like Ressa, who did not write the story about Keng, publisher Villalon and this writer were included in the charge sheet as publisher and editor-in-chief, respectively.
Reporters Ednalyn Belonio, Ruby Silubrico, and Lorelie Panes were initially included in the first wave of the case, but they were dropped in the succeeding cases, which arrived like a torrent of hurricane in an unprecedented volume.
Mr. San Jose entered the picture after Silubrico wrote a story about an incident in the jampacked SM City food court, where he was accused of tossing a P500 bill on a table occupied by several reporters, including this writer, who were there to cover the BIR’s official receipts raffle promo.
I ordered two of the reporters, Fernando “Kapid” Gabio and Francis Terania, to immediately return the money to Mr. San Jose. We also reported the incident in the Mandurriao Police Station.
Mr. San Jose, who was frequently visited by reporters in his BIR office, according to him, was infuriated. He insisted one of the reporters who sat on the table was the one who demanded money from him earlier. When ribbed, he couldn’t identify the reporter.
Then Bombo Radyo “Zona Libre” anchor and now Aksyon Radyo station manager John Paul Tia arranged a one-on-one joust between Mr. San Jose and this writer in his night program, where I politely reminded Mr. San Jose the SM City food court incident was the first time I ever met him personally; I went there to honor his invitation in a letter sent to our office a week earlier.
Mr. San Jose’s libel case had been knocked out in the prosecutor’s office.
Interestingy–and scandalously, all of the libel cases filed by Councilor Locsin had been “whisked” with mind-boggling alacrity and dispatch by the prosecutor’s office to the trial court!
To add insult and mystery, most of the “libelous” articles were blind items written by different authors. Could malice, a main ingredient in a libel case, be proven in blind items? Whoa.
While the cases were in progress, we endured the hate and insult from our adversaries and their allies who couldn’t bring us down to our knees.
It took five years since the cases were raffled off for trial to the different branches in the Hall of Justice from 1999 to 2004 when all the cases were finally dismissed: 38-0!
More than the triumph for press freedom, the episode exposed the inherent incompetence and corruption behind the characters responsible for elevating the cases to the trial court when they should have been dismissed in the prosecution level for being insubstantial and infirm in nature.
Ressa and Santos will be arraigned next month. They both have received tremendous moral support and otherwise from various media organizations in the Philippines and abroad.
Their supporters think Ressa and Santos, especially Rappler, are being “persecuted” owing to their rift with President Rodrigo R. Duterte.
Most of their colleagues and sympathizers view DOJ’s filing of the case and the subsequent NBI arrest to be an act to stifle the freedom of the press and expression.
There were those who argue, especially President Duterte’s allies, that the president had nothing to do with the case filed by Keng, who is a private businessman.
As long as democracy is alive and won’t be raped by a despotic rule, Ressa, Santos, and the Rappler will be able to surmount this crisis.