UN Expert Urges Philippines to Stop Crackdown on Press Freedom

Photo: Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
Photo: Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan condemned on July 14 the Philippines Court of Appeal decision to uphold the 2020 ‘cyber libel’ conviction of Nobel Peace Prize winning journalist Maria Ressa.

On 7 July, the Court of Appeal affirmed the libel conviction of Maria Ressa, Rappler co-founder and CEO, and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr, in relation to an article published on alleged corruption by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the Philippines. The Court also increased the maximum prison sentence by several months, to 6 years, 8 months and 20 days.

“The criminalisation of journalists for libel impedes public interest reporting and is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. Criminal libel law has no place in a democratic country and should be repealed,” Khan said.

“I am also concerned that the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act is being applied retroactively in this case, as the Rappler article in question was published before this law was enacted. This is yet another example of the relentless attack against Maria Ressa for daring to speak truth to power,” Khan said.

Ressa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines, faces numerous criminal and other charges related to her work, which are widely seen as reprisals against her reporting.

Rappler is an independent multimedia news outlet recognised for its scrutiny of the former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” and the spread of disinformation over the internet and social media. It has also been a strong advocate for press freedom, truth and democracy in the Philippines.

On 28 June, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission affirmed its 2018 decision to revoke Rappler’s certificates of incorporation, effectively confirming its shutdown.

Separately, on 8 June, the Philippine National Telecommunications Commission ordered internet providers to restrict access to local news websites Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly for allegedly violating anti-terrorism laws. Authorities have provided no evidence to justify the blockage.

“I am deeply concerned by recent developments in the Philippines to silence independent and investigative journalism in the country. I call on the new Administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to put an end to the criminalisation of libel, withdraw the charges against Maria Ressa, reverse the decisions against Rappler, Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, and investigate promptly and effectively all attacks and killings of journalists,” Khan said.

“I urge President Marcos to take this opportunity to bring an end to the crackdown on press freedom in the Philippines,” she said.

Ms. Irene Khan was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on 17 July 2020.

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Rakesh Raman