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THE PHILIPPINE SENATE is likely to pass a measure that would decriminalize libel, or at least significantly reduce the penalties for the offense by removing the jail term.

This view was raised by Senator Aquilino Pimentel III after Thursday’s hearing of the Senate commitee on justice and human rights, which he heads. The committee called the hearing to deliberate on at least 11 bills in the Senate decriminalizing libel, or substantially reducing the penalty for the offense.

There may be a catch, though. Pimentel also says he favors a Right of Reply measure that would give persons who feel aggrieved the guarantee of free and equal broadcast time or print space in the same media where they had been criticized or slighted.

Pimentel said that while he is convinced of the need to decriminalize libel, there is a need to address the concerns of those who feel that they are being defamed. As such, Pimentel said he is still in favor of a Right of Reply measure similar to those previously filed with the House of Representatives, which guarantees those who feel aggrieved by media the right to demand equal airtime or print space to give their reply.

These measures have been opposed by media groups as a violation of press freedom and an intrusion into editorial decisions made by newsrooms.

“I want to propose a right of reply as a remedy or an option,” Pimentel said. “When you are attacked in a two-by-six inch article in a newspaper, you should have the right to reply and be given the same area in the newspaper.”

When media organizations present in the hearing raised objections to the right of reply proposal, Pimentel said he may consider one proposal for an “opportunity to respond” measure, which may not be as harsh. “We will study it,” Pimentel said. “That is a midpoint, a possible compromise.”

Pimentel said he is confident that the chamber will fashion a bill that would decriminalize libel, or at least remove the prison term. Pimentel pointed out that there are at least 11 pending bills to this effect before his committee, or almost half of the number of senators in the chamber.

“That number shows you the number of senators interested in the decriminalization of libel, or the weakening of penalties for libel,” Pimentel said. He said his committee will probably call one last hearing on these bills before drafting a committee report to present to the plenary. Pimentel is confident that a consolidated bill would be thrown to the Senate floor for deliberations by June this year.

Pimentel added that such a move would benefit, not just journalists, but anyone who wants to express himself. “In the modern day, we are all journalists when we post opinions on the internet. We will all benefit when we relax the rules on libel.”

However, Pimentel stressed the need to give those who feel aggrieved “an effective remedy” to prevent them from taking the law into their own hands.”

“Tignan natin if the Philippine justice system is ready for the decriminalization of libel, because people defamed feel that they also have other remedies under the law,” he said. “Meron pa rin dapat effective remedy sa nasasaktan, kung may remedy, people will not take the law into their own hands.”

(Let us see if the Philippine justice system is ready for the decriminalization of libel. There has to be an effective remedy for those aggrieved; if there is a remedy, people will not take the law into their own hands.)

Different media organizations made a concerted push for the decriminalization of libel during Thursday’s hearing. Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, showed the committee how the current libel laws have been used throughout history to suppress criticism and dissent.

Mangahas referred to the case of the newspaper El Renacimiento, which was hit with the first libel suit in Philippine history during the American colonial period. The newspaper carried an editorial attacking unnamed colonial American officials of benefiting from the exploitation of the country’s natural resources.

Then Secretary of the Interior Dean Conant Worcester felt alluded to, filed a libel suit, and won. The paper’s editor and owner were sent to jail, and the paper was forced to fold up.

The country’s libel laws are contained in Article 353 to 362 of the Revised Penal Code, enacted during the American period in 1930.

“If you decriminalize now, you are correcting an 84-year old law,” Mangahas told the committee. Mangahas said the country’s libel laws are outdated because they were crafted during a time when the country’s colonial masters thought that “Filipinos are not ready for democracy and not good enough for a free press.”

Mangahas said the news organizations generally agreed with most of the contents of the 11 bills decriminalizing libel or removing the prison term. However, she expressed concern over provisions in the bill of Senator Gregorio Honasan that serve to regulate membership in the fourth estate.

In particular, Mangahas said Honasan’s bill requires professional news organizations to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission, prescribes ethical standards rules and regulations, including penalties, and requires mass media members to be members of these professional news organizations.

“So no journalist or netizen may practice unless he is a member of a registered professional organization?” Mangahas asked of Honasan’s bill.

Mangahas also told the committee that self regulation of the media is still the best option, as a democracy mandates a press that is open and unfettered. “A free press can be good or bad, but without freedom, it can never be anything,” she said. “Self-regulation works for the most part, and it is best to leave to the journalists the improvement in ethical standards and compliance.”

Officials from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the Philippine Press Institute also pointed out that libel laws are being used to give a “chilling effect” to many journalists in the countryside. NUJP vice chairman Alwyn Alburo and PPI director Ariel Sebellino pointed out that unlike their colleagues in large national news organizations, community journalists often do not have resources with which to secure legal protection from libel suits.

Not everyone in the committee hearing supported the idea of decriminalizing libel, though. Police Senior Superintendent Carlos de Sagun, chief of the public information division of the Philippine National Police, said decriminalizing libel would have a “humiliating effect” on policemen.

De Sagun said this was his own personal opinion, as the PNP has not yet drafted an official position on the issue.

De Sagun said if libel is decriminalized, then police officials would no longer have any defense over what he calls reckless attacks by some in the media.

“Ang mga radio programs, ang daming umaatake sa pulis,” de Sagun told the committee. “Rinig po ng buong pamilya, mumurahin ka sa broadcast sa radyo. Wala na kaming ano para madepensa ang aming mga sarili.”

(There are radio programs that keep attacking the police. These are heard by the whole family. They curse us during their broadcasts. We would no longer be able to defend ourselves.)

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