On Monday, a local court found prominent journalist and administration critic Maria Ressa guilty of cyber-libel and ordered that she pay a fine and damages of roughly USD 8,000, and sentenced her to a minimum of six months and a maximum of six years in prison. Ressa will be out on bail while her appeal is pending, and the multi-level process — first to the Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court — could take years, potentially going beyond the end of President Rodrigo Duterte’s term in 2022. Rappler, the media organization that she set up and which published the story that was the subject of the complaint, was not penalized and will continue to operate.
A small online media organization, Rappler’s readership can primarily be found in the metropolitan and upper-income classes, particularly among those who are against the president and his policies. Its reach into the larger population, especially in the non-urban areas and with the poor, is low. While the decision will likely further reinforce the negative perceptions abroad of Duterte on human rights, rule of law and institutional independence, as well as heighten the anger of the anti-Duterte minority in the country, these lines are already well drawn. By itself, therefore, the decision is unlikely to significantly shift the rest of domestic politics in the near term.
Duterte likely targets Rappler despite its limited reach not only because of how it can affect international and urban coverage of his administration, especially of his signature drug war, but because he sees it as representing the elites that he and his supporters disdain. It has even been banned from the presidential palace and any event attended by Duterte. Therefore, openly attacking it plays well to his base, and his narrative that prominent segments of mainstream media are conspiring with foreigners and the elites to bring down his government. His administration’s unwillingness to provide broadcast network ABS-CBN with a legislative license also stems from this agenda.
Other local media will see her conviction as confirming that the country’s institutions key institutions are so far unwilling to go against Duterte’s declared enemies. Therefore, taking the cue from the current legal problems of Rappler and ABS-CBN, local media will generally temper their criticism of the administration to avoid getting into the president’s crosshairs. This unwillingness to confront the administration recognizes the fact that he still has almost two years remaining in his term and that there is a possibility that one of his closest allies or his daughter, Sara, could succeed him. Furthermore, the media is sufficiently fragmented that they are unlikely to rally around Ressa or ABS-CBN and become a more consolidated opponent of the administration.