June 16, 2020

A short summary of the RTC decision on Maria Ressa's online libel case

Here is a concise summary of Manila RTC Branch 46 presiding judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa’s 37-page decision on People v. Maria Ressa et al., docketed as Criminal Case No. R-MNL-19-01141-CR for violation of Section 4(c)(4) of R.A. 10175 (Online Libel).


RAPPLER’S REYNALDO SANTOS in the 01 February 2014 Rappler article “C.J. using SUVs of Controversial Businessman,” accused BUSINESSMAN WILFREDO KENG of involvement in Human Trafficking, Drug Trafficking, Smuggling, Tax Evasion, and Murder.

Keng tried to negotiate with RAPPLER’S MARITES VITUG to publish a clarification or retraction, and Vitug assigned RAPPLER’S KATERINA SABELINA FRANCISCO to write the article. Keng showed Rappler a PDEA certificate showing drug allegations are false, and Law Enforcement didn’t even find enough justification to initiate an investigation on the murder, human trafficking, smuggling, tax evasion, and murder allegations.

Keng repeatedly followed-up with Rappler for seven months, but no article was published.

Rappler’s Francisco seconded Keng’s claims when she testified that she drafted a clarificatory story and submitted it to Rappler’s editors, but it was never published.

Rappler did not only refuse to publish Francisco’s follow-up article, but also refused to take down Santos’ article, leading Keng to file libel charges against Santos, RAPPLER EDITOR-IN-CHIEF MARIA RESSA, and RAPPLER CHAIRMAN BENJAMIN BITANGA.


RAPPLER FOUNDER MA. ROSARIO “CHAI” F. HOFILEÑA testified that Rappler has a pool of several editors that reviews stories before they’re published. Hofileña said Ressa is the CEO and Executive Editor, whose job is to oversee the entire organization and worry about its financials.

Hofileña said Ressa isn’t involved in Rappler’s day-to-day operations. She further explained that Ressa’s Executive Editor position isn’t equivalent to editor-in-chief in the newspaper and that Rappler has no editor-in-chief.

Hofileña explained that Ressa would typically consult with the other editors if an article involves a controversial story, and editors collectively decide what to do about it. Hofileña, however, said if there’s a stalemate, Ressa breaks the tie.

The defense also showed a legal opinion from the NBI indicating that the offense has prescribed, i.e., Keng filed a libel case beyond the 1-year limit.

The defense decided against presenting Ressa and Santos.


An online libel conviction can be had if prosecution shows five (5) elements of online libel are present, namely: (1) defamatory statement, (2) publication, (3) identification, (4) done online, and (5) malice.

The first four elements can easily be shown with a glance at Reynaldo Santos’ 01 February 2014 Rappler article “C.J. using SUVs of Controversial Businessman”[1], and the main point of contention in this case is the fifth element, i.e. Malice.


“Malice” per Yuchengco v. Manila Chronicle [2] is ill will or spite and speaks not in response to duty but merely to injure the reputation of the person defamed, and implies an intention to do ulterior and unjustifiable harm.

The Supreme Court in Disini v. SOJ [3] presumes malice if complainant is a private individual, and Wilfredo Keng is such.

But RTC went a step further when it ruled that actual malice, which Vasquez v. C.A.[4] defined as “knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not,” is present in this case.

The RTC said:
“Santos wrote the xxx article sans verification xxx. The article imputes various crimes upon xxx Keng which was sufficiently proven during trial to be untrue. xxx This utter lack of verification is contrary to the (journalistic) standard maintained by Rappler, as testified by Hofileña xxx.”
The RTC said both Santos and Ressa were aware of the probable falsity of their claims, as Keng has already pointed out the inaccuracies and even provided Rappler with a PDEA certification. Despite this, both Santos and Ressa didn’t publish the clarificatory article and allowed the libelous article to remain on the website.

The RTC said:
“Any news organization who claims to adhere to accuracy, fairness, and balance in terms of reporting, would have retracted, or xxx, issued a clarificatory article if there have been some indications of falsity to its previous article. Both accused, however, did not.”


Using an NBI legal opinion, Ressa argued that the lawsuit has prescribed, i.e., Keng sued after the time limit (one year after publication) was over.

RTC, however, rejected the NBI opinion because it’s just an internal NBI memorandum that “does not bear weight in this case,” as “it is not relevant and does not bind the Court.”

RTC, citing Panaguiton v. DOJ [5], said Act No. 3326 [6] applies to the special law on Online Libel (R.A. 10175 Sec 4(c)(4)), as it explained that online Libel carries a penalty of at least four years’ imprisonment, so the prescription period is 12 years.


RTC, citing RPC Art 360 [7], said both the author and editor or business manager are liable, adding that the editor or business manager’s duty “to know and control the contents of the paper”.

Hofileña claims Ressa is Rappler's CEO and Executive Editor but not an editor-in-chief. Still, RTC noted that Hofileña admitted that Ressa makes the ultimate decision during deadlocks, i.e., Ressa controls and approves Rappler’s content.

RTC noted that per RPC Art 361 [8], a defendant should be acquitted if libelous statement is true and was published with good motives and for justifiable ends but neither Santos nor Ressa appeared to prove that ground for acquittal.

The silence of the accused should not be taken against him but per People v. Resano, a prima facie case from the prosecution, as is the case here, may warrant the accused to take the stand to refute the case, but neither Ressa nor Santos did.

RTC then ruled:
“Judgement is hereby rendered finding accused Reynaldo Santos Jr and Maria Angelita Ressa GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt xxx and are each xxx sentenced to suffer the indeterminate penalty of imprisonment ranging from 6 months and 1 day xxx to six years xxx.”


[1] Rappler. CJ using SUVs of 'controversial' businessmen. 19 Feb 2014. https://rjnieto.me/3hrIQIJ
[2] Yuchengco v. Manila Chronicle. https://rjnieto.me/3fE8BUv
[5] Panaguiton v. DOJ. https://rjnieto.me/2MY1Jos
[7] Revised Penal Code Article 360. https://rjnieto.me/2UOKVEH
[8] Revised Penal Code Article 361. https://rjnieto.me/2UOKVEH


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