US offers belated 'concern' over Philippine journalist case
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Trump administration has voiced a muted and belated expression of "concern" about the convictions of two Filipino journalists for defamation.
A one-page statement by the US State Department, "About Press Freedom in the Philippines," published Tuesday nearly 48 hours after a court in Manila was found, could raise new questions about the United States' commitment to supporting press freedom abroad.
In the statement, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus urged the Philippines to resolve the case, but did not question the trial or guilty verdict against award-winning journalist Maria Ressa and her former colleague Reynaldo Santos Jr. of Rappler online news Site.
"The United States, concerned about the court's ruling against journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, is calling for the case to be resolved in a way that reinforces the United States and the Philippines' longstanding commitment to freedom of expression, including for press representatives. " She said.
Ressa and Santos were convicted on Monday of libeling a wealthy businessman when human rights defenders called for a severe blow to freedom of the press in an Asian bastion of democracy. The verdict was announced in Washington on Sunday evening, and repeated requests for U.S. comments on the Monday morning case in Washington remained unanswered.
Ressa, the website's founder and former CNN reporter who was featured in Time Magazine in 2018, and Santos were convicted of a May 29, 2012 rappler story citing an intelligence report that included businessman Wilfredo Keng a murder and drug trade links human trafficking and smuggling. The website's lawyers denied any malice and said the deadline for submitting the defamation complaint had passed.
Rappler's lawyers said the story was based on an unspecified intelligence report and that Filipino criminal law required filing a defamation complaint within a year. Keng filed his lawsuit in 2017, five years after the story was released.
The cybercrime law, which the Rappler journalists allegedly violated, was enacted in September 2012 or four months after the Santos story was published. Rappler's lawyers said the Philippine criminal laws cannot be applied retrospectively.
Ressa was sentenced to up to six years in prison, but her lawyer Theodore Te said prison terms and other sentences could not be enforced unless all appeals were dismissed. She deposited a bail on the case last year and will review possible appeals over the next 15 days, Te said.
Defenders of human rights and freedom of the press have condemned what they consider to be symptomatic of an erosion of the ability of journalists to report news in the Philippines specifically and globally independently. Reporters Without Borders, the Journalists Protection Committee, and Freedom House were among those who denounced the verdict.
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, whom President Donald Trump admires, and other Filipino officials said the lawsuits against Ressa and Rappler are not a matter of freedom of the press, but part of normal legal process resulting from their alleged violations of the law.
Like Trump, Duterte has openly abused journalists and news sites that report critically about him, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a leading daily newspaper, and ABS-CBN, the country's largest television broadcaster, which was closed down by the government's telecommunications agency last month.
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