Debevoise Files Amicus Brief Asking the Supreme Court of the Philippines to Overturn “Cyber Libel” Convictions of Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr.

18 June 2024

Debevoise & Plimpton LLP has submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court of the Philippines on behalf of media freedom organizations Committee to Protect Journalists (“CPJ”), the International Center for Journalists (“ICFJ”) and Reporters Without Borders (“RSF”), arguing that the criminal defamation convictions of two Filipino journalists, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr., should be overturned because they violate international human rights and threaten to chill free expression in the Philippines.

In June 2020, Ms. Ressa and Mr. Santos were convicted of “cyber libel” under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of the Philippines (“CPA”) in connection with a 2012 article reported by Mr. Santos and published on Ms. Ressa’s news site, Rappler. The article discussed alleged involvement in illegal activities by a Filipino-Chinese businessman with an alleged link to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Most of the facts and allegations in the article had previously been publicly reported or disclosed elsewhere. After Mr. Keng filed a complaint against Rappler, Ms. Ressa and Mr. Santos were charged and later convicted under the CPA—even though the article in question was published before the CPA was enacted—and sentenced to prison terms of up to six years.

The conviction was later upheld by the Court of Appeals, which concluded that Rappler had “republished” the article when it fixed typographical errors in 2014, thereby bringing it within scope of the CPA. Ms. Ressa and Mr. Santos’s appeal is now before the Supreme Court.

The Debevoise brief argues that Ms. Ressa and Mr. Santos’s criminal convictions, if not overturned, will have impermissible chilling effects on the freedoms of expression and the press, both of which are core not just to international human rights law, but to the legacy of the Philippines as Southeast Asia’s oldest democracy. In particular, the brief argues that the cyber libel provision of the CPA is an impermissible restraint on speech under binding human rights law, that the lower courts in this case erroneously did not adhere to principles of U.S. libel law, and that this application of the CPA to Ms. Ressa and Mr. Santos wrongfully relies upon a retroactive application of a law.

The Debevoise team authoring the brief was led by litigation partner Natalie Reid and included associates Michael Pizzi, Amina Afifi, Hillary Hubley and Becca Murphy, as well as former associate Ramsay McCulloch.