World

Concerns for media freedom after conviction of Philippine journalists. Australian Karm Gilespie sentenced to death in China. Vice-chancellor of Pacific university suspended. US Supreme Court finds gay and transgender workers protected by Civil Rights Act. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Maria Ressa found guilty of ‘cyber libel’

Rappler editor Maria Ressa after her conviction for cyber libel in Manila on Monday.
Credit: EZRA ACAYAN / GETTY IMAGES

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

China: In the seven years since he was arrested at Guangzhou airport, allegedly with 7.5 kilograms of methamphetamine in his luggage, little has been heard from Karm Gilespie, a 56-year-old Australian former actor and wealth adviser. Last weekend, however, the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court revealed it had sentenced Gilespie to death. He was given 10 days to appeal.

The conviction follows a series of measures taken by China against Australia in recent weeks, including curbing purchases of Australian beef and barley and warning its students and tourists to reconsider visiting Australia due to the risk of racist assaults. China has insisted these various moves were unrelated to the strained ties between the countries or to its anger at Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Australia should respect Gilespie’s sentence, saying it “has nothing to do with bilateral relations”. Australian officials, too, have denied the case is related to recent tensions with Beijing.

Scott Morrison said in parliament that the government was “sad and concerned” about the decision and would raise the case with China. Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, confirmed that Gilespie had received consular assistance throughout his detention.

But the prospects of Canberra persuading Beijing to show leniency appear weak, at least in the current climate. Australia has previously failed to secure a reprieve for Australians in Indonesia and Singapore, even though ties with these countries were warmer than with China.

Amnesty International describes China as “the world’s leading executioner” and estimates the number of executed prisoners yearly is in the thousands.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Fiji: The University of the South Pacific, based in Suva, is jointly owned by 12 Pacific countries and covers an area of 33 million square kilometres. It was set up in the late 1960s as the region was emerging from colonialism and has promoted research and learning about the Pacific’s culture, history and environment.

But the university’s governance has been called into question following the suspension last week of the vice-chancellor, Pal Ahluwalia, a widely respected former professor of politics at Adelaide University. He has been accused of misconduct, but the suspension has been criticised by students, staff and several member states.

Ahluwalia told Radio New Zealand last week he believed he was suspended because of a report he wrote about financial mismanagement and abuse of process by his predecessor and members of the university’s leadership group.

Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a graduate of the university who is now based at the University of Hawai’i, said the recent events had sent “a tsunami of concerns and anger across our Oceania region and beyond”. He described the university as a “sacred place of learning” which was now being “selfishly and disrespectfully desecrated”.

“It is not just a place where we went to school, our alma mater, or a place of employment,” he wrote in a Facebook post that was widely shared and republished. “This is our intellectual home, a place where some of us grew up and with which we are deeply connected.”

Dame Meg Taylor, the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, has called for a special meeting of the university’s governing council to resolve the dispute – a plea echoed by the governments of Australia and New Zealand, which are university donors, and several university member states.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Philippines: In 2012, Maria Ressa, a prominent Philippine journalist and former Time magazine person of the year, co-founded Rappler, a news site whose investigations have exposed political corruption and the spread of misinformation on social media.

Since 2016, when President Rodrigo Duterte took office, Rappler has reported extensively on the extrajudicial violence and killings carried out as part of his brutal drug war. Duterte has relentlessly attacked her, and authorities have tried to shut down her site.

On Monday, a court in Manila found Ressa guilty of committing “cyber libel” – a decision that raised further concerns about the country’s media freedom.

The charges related to a story in 2012 about ties between a judge and a businessman with alleged links to human trafficking and drug smuggling. Reynaldo Santos Jr, the site’s former researcher and writer, was also found guilty.

The cyber libel charges only came into effect four months after the article was published, but the case was allowed to proceed because, in 2014, the article was updated to fix a one-letter spelling error.

Ressa and Santos face up to six years in jail.

“We’re at the precipice,” she said after the verdict. “If we fall over, we’re no longer a democracy.”

Duterte has attacked other reporters and media outlets, including the country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, which was taken off the air last month. His office said the media should respect the court’s verdict this week, adding that he “believes in free speech”.

SPOTLIGHT: Equal rights

United States: In 2013, Gerald Bostock, who worked as an advocate for children in the juvenile justice system in Georgia, joined a gay softball league. Shortly after, he was fired for “conduct unbecoming of a county employee.”

Bostock, who is now 56, launched a legal battle, arguing that his termination violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On Monday, the Supreme Court delivered him – and all other LGBTQIA+ Americans – a victory, ruling that employees can no longer be discriminated against in the workplace on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Following the decision, Bostock said in a statement: “Today, we can go to work without the fear of being fired for who we are and who we love.”

Bostock was joined by two other plaintiffs: Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor who was fired in New York after telling a female student he was gay, and Aimee Stephens, a funeral home worker in Michigan who was fired after revealing to her boss that she was transgender. Neither Zarda nor Stephens survived to see the verdict.

Surprisingly, the court’s ruling was delivered by a 6-3 majority after two conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch, joined the four liberal justices.

Gorsuch, who was appointed by Donald Trump, wrote the majority verdict, ruling that the ban on discrimination based on sex applies to homosexual and transgender employees.

“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” he wrote. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision.”

The decision will protect workers in about 28 states that do not already have protections for homosexual and transgender workers.

Trump told reporters the ruling was surprising, but “we live with their decision”. “A very powerful decision actually,” he said. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2020 as "Maria Ressa found guilty of 'cyber libel'".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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