The cyber libel trial against independent news startup Rappler’s CEO and one of its former writers starts in Manila

The cyber libel trial againstMaria Ressa,the CEO and executive editor of independent media startupRappler, started today in Manila, in a case that will be closely watched because of its implications for press freedom in the Philippines. Also on trial is Reynaldo Santos Jr, a former researcher and writer for the site. If convicted, both potentially face years in jail.

Before co-foundingRappler,Ressa, aTime Magazine Person of the Yearfor her work exposing corruption and fighting misinformation, served as CNN’s bureau chief in Manila and then Jakarta. Ressa is an outspoken critic of the Philippine’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, and Rappler has often reported critically on Duterte’s administration. In turn, Duterte hasaccused Rappler of being funded by the CIAandpublishing fake news.

Both Ressa and Santos were arrested earlier this year on cyber libel security charges foran article published in 2012that reported on the alleged ties between Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona, who was impeached in 2011, and wealthy businessmen including Wilfredo Keng. Kengfiled the cyber libel complaint against Ressa and Santos in 2017.

The five year gap between the publication of the article and Keng’s complaint is an important issue in the trial, because there is usually only a one-year prescriptive period for ordinary libel in the Philippines’ penal code. In order to charge Ressa and Santos, the Department of Justiceextended that period to 12 years for cyber libel, which Rappler counsel J.J. Disini has argued could impact constitutionally-protected rights.

Prior to Ressa’s arrest, Rappler’s registration wasrevoked by the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission, for allegedly breaking a law that prohibits overseas ownership of media companies, though Rappler said its investors, including Omidyar Network and North Bridge Media, used Philippine Depositary Receipts, which do not give voting rights or board membership and have also been used by other companies like ABS-CBN, the national broadcaster.

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