NEW YORK – The conviction of two Philippine journalists for libel is a blow to press freedom and comes as media watchdogs track declines in press freedoms and democratic institutions around the world.
A Manila court found Maria Ressa of the online news site Rappler Inc. and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. guilty of libeling a wealthy businessman. Philippine officials have maintained that the criminal complaints against Ressa and Rappler are not a press freedom issue.
But the conviction is the latest move by the government to intimidate journalists, said Reporters Without Borders, which tracks press freedoms. It called Ressa's conviction a “shocking judicial masquerade.”
Ostensibly democratic countries are using vague laws to criminalize reporting, leading to more journalists in jail, while individual journalists more often find themselves at the mercy of social media harassment aimed at intimidating them, said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Democracies are restricting press freedom more and more,” he said.
Reporters Without Borders has cited a litany of challenges to press freedom, including a rise in authoritarian or populist regimes trying to suppress independent journalism, disinformation and laws against disinformation that are turned against media outlets. It also notes the financial pressures faced by many news outlets, as well as increased political polarization.
Freedom House, a U.S. nonprofit that tracks democracies, says press freedoms are eroding as elected leaders in democracies seek to silence critical voices, efforts it links to a decline in democracy itself. More than half of the world’s established democracies have “deteriorated” over the past 14 years, it says.
It cites Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has “dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions.” Orban's allies have taken control of much of the country's press. He had a coronavirus law passed that could mean up to five years in prison for false information.
In India, the ruling party has discouraged speech that is “antinational,” and there have been raids of journalists' homes and offices, Freedom House says. Journalists may face criminal prosecution for critical stories.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says that there are 248 journalists imprisoned around the world, with the highest numbers in China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Other politicians in the U.S. and leaders abroad have picked up on President Donald Trump's frequent use of the term “fake news” for stories he doesn't like, and on his denigration of journalists.
“The term ‘false news’ has been made a weapon to use against journalists,” Mahoney said, with the number of convictions of journalists for under “fake news” laws growing in recent years. “It's given a perfect framework for the repression of reporting.”
Recent police-brutality protests have amplified hostility toward journalists in the U.S. Police have arrested, harassed and attacked journalists covering recent police brutality protests, and some protesters have gone after reporters as well. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has tracked more than 400 incidents in 60 cities.
Ressa, who won the CPJ’s Gwen Ifill Press Freedom award two years ago, warned in her acceptance speech that Trump’s verbal attacks on the press “give permission to autocrats (like ours) to unleash the dark side of humanity and extend their already vast powers with impunity.”
Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association, said “the justice we can do to Maria Ressa’s important work is really taking heed of her warnings.”
Business Writer Alexandra Olson contributed to this report.