June 14 (UPI) -- A Philippines court on Monday convicted celebrated journalist Maria Ressa of cyber libel in a case that freedom of the press and human rights advocates described as an attempt to muzzle criticism of the Duterte government.
Ressa was arrested in February of last year at the offices of Rappler, the news organization she founded and runs as its CEO and executive editor, over a 2017 complaint centered on an article published five years prior alleging ties between businessman Wilfredo Keng and then-Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona. The online news organization had previously linked Corona to alleged illegal drug deals and human trafficking.
The complaint was filed under a controversial cyber libel law that was enacted in September 2012 -- months after the article was published.
Ressa, along with Reynaldo Santos who wrote the article, were convicted of the charge and face between six months and six years in prison, Rappler reported.
The pair is expected to be released on bail and will appeal the conviction, which could go all the way to the Supreme Court, the online news organization founded in 2012 reported.
Rappler, which was also charged in the case, was ruled not liable.
Ressa called the verdict "devastating" but not "unexpected."
"We will keep fighting," she told reporters. "It is a blow, a blow to us, but it's also not unexpected as we are going to stand up against any kind of attacks against press freedom."
The ruling is the most recent affront to press freedom in the Philippines, after ABS-CBN, the country's largest television network, was ordered to shut down early May over the expiration of its congressional franchise; however, critics argue its cessation was due to a series of investigative reports on extrajudicial killings that occurred as part of President Rodrigo Duterte's so-called war on drugs campaign.
Ressa appealed to journalists during the press conference to keep fighting to protect their rights.
"We are meant to be a cautionary tale," she said. "We are meant to make you afraid. So I appeal again, don't be afraid because if you don't use your rights, you will lose them. If we don't challenge a brazen move to try and rollback rights guaranteed in the Constitution, we will lose them."
Amnesty International called the verdict "a sham" and demanded the charges be quashed.
"Ressa, Santos and the Rappler team are being singled out for their critical reporting of the Duterte administration, including ongoing human rights violations in the Philippines," said Nicholas Bequelin, the regional director of the international human rights organization's Asia-Pacific region, in a statement. "The accusations against them are political, the prosecution was politically motivated and the sentence is nothing but political."
This "assault" on independent media proves human rights in the Philippines are in "freefall" and the United Nations should open an investigation into the crisis, Bequelin said.
Earlier this month, a United Nations report said the Philippines government has engaged in widespread human rights violations as part of its efforts to combat drugs and to ensure national security.
Ressa faces at least seven other criminal charges, including an anti-dummy charge alleging Rappler to be foreign-owned.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong issued a statement condemning Ressa's conviction.
"The FCC is gravely concerned about the precedent this sets and the possible chilling effect on the press in the Philippines and across the region," FCC President Jodi Schneider said. "Press freedom, already endangered in the Philippines, is now further undermined with this high-profile verdict."