THE arrest of Newsbreak online coordinator and writer Gemma Bagayaua over a P100-million libel suit is described as the latest of the series of attacks against press freedom under the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The New York-based media group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) denounced the arrest and criticized “authorities in the Philippines” for “using criminal libel as a battering ram against press freedom.”

The libel suit of Ilocos Sur Governor and administration senatorial bet Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson against Bagayaua and four other Newsbreak editors and journalists follows the flurry of libel charges against journalists in the country today.

Arroyo’s husband, First Gentleman Jose Miguel ‘Mike’ Arroyo, has filed similar suits against 46 journalists, prompting media groups to call on Mr. Arroyo and the President to stop harassing journalists and using “an antiquated libel law as a tool to silence criticisms.” Mike Arroyo has sought a total of P141 million in damages.

“Government officials should not rush to a prosecutor every time a journalist writes critically about those in power,” CPJ executive director Joel Simon said.

Newsbreak staff and its other writers alone face two other libel suits. One stems from an article on the family’s alleged undisclosed properties in California. Another case was filed against Mia Gonzales for writing an article in the magazine about Mr. Arroyo’s “perceived crookedness and perceived influence in governance.”

“The message we’re getting is this: no matter how responsible journalists are, you can no longer seek protection in the law,” Newsbreak editor in chief Marites Dañguilan Vitug said in an earlier statement.

University of the Philippines law professor Harry Roque said the arrest of Bagayaua is indeed “a clear case of using libel laws to suppress press freedom.”

Roque said the fact that the warrant was served in the afternoon, at a time when judges are normally no longer around, meant that “it was their intention” to detain her.

Bagayaua had to spend a night at the Pasig City police station after her lawyer failed to post bail. She was released after 21 hours in police custody. The others who were charged — Vitug, business editor Lala Rimando, senior writer Aries Rufo, and former managing director Ma-An Hontiveros — posted bail today.

Roque added that “the country needs another Alston,” the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in the Philippines, to visit and examine the use of libel laws here. (On the UN website, the Philippines remains in the list of countries yet to be visited by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.)

Roque explained that under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Philippines, being a party, is obligated to uphold the rights covered by the covenant.

Article 19 of the ICCPR states that “everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of choice.”

When any of the said rights are violated, complaints may be elevated before the UN Commission on Human Rights, provided that all domestic remedies had been exhausted.

Roque, who is also the lawyer of the group of journalists and press freedom advocates who filed a suit against Mr. Arroyo, said the case will definitely be elevated before the international community should the local courts dismiss the petition.

In the civil class action suit, to which the PCIJ is a party, the plaintiffs assert that Mike Arroyo is abusing his right to litigate and is violating the freedom of the press by the “barrage of malicious libel suits” against journalists.

The journalists based their arguments on the doctrine of fair comment, which holds that “fair commentaries on matter of public interest are privileged communication and are not necessarily actionable.” (See Borjal v. Court of Appeals)

Another important jurisprudence is U.S. v. Bustos, where the court ruled that “a public officer must not be too thin-skinned with reference to comment upon his official acts. Only thus can the intelligence and dignity of the individual can be exalted. The public officer may suffer under a hostile and unjust accusation; the wound can be assuaged with the balm of clear conscience.”

Decriminalizing libel

In an earlier statement, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) said that the Philippines, “as one of the rare havens for democracy in the region, and as party to the ICCPR,” should “set a higher standard with respect to human rights, of which freedom of expression is paramount.”

SEAPA also said that beyond the court case of Mr. Arroyo, the Philippine legislators must decriminalize libel.

Under the Revised Penal Code, penalties for libel range from a fine of P200 to P6,000 (US$4 to US$110) and imprisonment of at least six months to a maximum of six years.

Article 353 defines libel as “a public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance tending to discredit or cause the dishonor or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”

According to Roque, Congress has not made any move to decriminalize it. The latest attempt came from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, a coalition of more than 600 journalists, and 30 local and foreign international media organizations when it issued a joint petition calling for the decriminalization of libel.

ARTICLE 19, a human rights organization engaged in the promotion of freedom of expression worldwide, said that criminal defamation laws are often abused by those in power to limit criticism and stifle public debate.

“The illegitimacy of the use of criminal defamation laws to maintain public order, or to protect other public interests, has already been noted. For these reasons, criminal defamation laws should be repealed and replaced with civil defamation laws,” it said.

The Philippines, together with Thailand and Cambodia, are among the countries in Southeast Asia that have yet to decriminalize libel.

For more information on defamation, read ARTICLE 19’s international standards series here. Or downloadDefining Defamation, Principles on Freedom of Expression and Protection of Reputation.”

5 Responses to Libel a ‘battering ram’ vs press freedom

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Simon

March 10th, 2007 at 12:33 am

Libel is a harassment tool of GMA and her gang to intimidate or complicate principled critics of her corrupt regime. I suggest you harness the power of TRUTH and of the PRESS to expose GMA’s true anti-people/anti-democracy color to the people thru media and other friemds in media. Let’s remind the people of her fake presidency and why she must go by electing those opposing her administration. We cannot remain divided, myopic or selfish as to forget the bigger picture and real enemy and, by being divided again, let her have her way again just like in 2004. Let’s take off from the steam last year that almost “tsunamied” GMA out of office. Let’s remind the people of the issues against her… Garci election cheating scandal, the call for truth by CBCP which GMA ignored, the brave testimonies of the Marine General/Col, the Manila Hotel 10, the calloused shameless JDV Congress blocking GMA’s impeachment, the military sponsored indiscriminate killings of media practitioners and activists… etc. There are so many issues against GMA and her gang last year which nobody now ever reminds the people of. Let’s remind the people and PCIJ can champion this crusade. Kung walang kikilos, sino! Let’s concentrate on ousting her by electing enough opposition congressmen and senators. That’s the start, and once impeached, we can concentrate on electing the next better president. This is the opportune time to bring down GMA and her shameless political group who looked upon us all as the forgetful or short-memoried pygmies who are no match to their wickedness and wretchedness. Chavit Singson, MIke Defensor and their likes with the gall to run for senators! Wow what an ultimate insult to the Filipinos’ last straw of dignity. Please… please… take the lead PCIJ!!!

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Troy Fabunan

March 10th, 2007 at 1:45 pm

what can we expect from a warlord like chavit singson? why he survives today in the political scene in the philippines with some credibility intact is fascinating. is it a fault that can be blamed on the filipino’s easy to forgive attitute. here is a criminal who admitted to conspiring to steal from the tobacco farmers of the ilocos region and being a bagman for jueteng operations, he is now running for senator. although redeeming himself for coming out as a star witness for the prosecution of a fallen president, he is also not without fault. it is important to remember that he was purportedly targetted first for a rubout by the group he ratted against before he went public with the now famous allegations. the forgiveness he should be given is to retire in obscuration, not rewarded with honors and positions of importance.

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kim

March 10th, 2007 at 4:02 pm

I don’t really grasp a point here why this government is pushing hard to put these journalists in jail. I believe these journalists are basing their reports on facts and not just mere fiction nor hallucination. Where is now our press freedom here? Do they really know that investigative journalism is a part of our human rights to look for any anomalies in the government. There should be a “check & balance” on their job. And whos’ job can look for the issues that is detrimental to our government mis-management? These are only by our independent yet brave journalist who can un-cover their anomalies.

It’s just surprising to me that this is the first time in the history of the press freedom in our country that this GMA government is really nuzzling to harass & prosecute our journalists. This government even surpassed the Marcos era in prosecuting the journalists. Would these journalists endangered their lives if their reports are not true & unfounded? PCIJ is only the real and undaunted information we can have these days to look for the wrong-doings of this administration. And I really believe that PCIJ gives us the real picture of this GMA administration.

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INSIDE PCIJ » Journalists welcome, criticize Mike Arroyo’s dropping of libel cases

May 3rd, 2007 at 8:38 pm

[…] “Dropping the charges may ease the conscience of Mr. Arroyo as he intended it to be. But freedom of the press should not be held hostage by any individual’s whims or perceived affront to his person, character or dignity,” Macasaet said. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) welcomed Arroyo’s statement, but said that it would rather credit journalists for pushing back, instead of the First Gentleman for any change of heart. […]

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Filipino bloggers should help ‘decriminalize’ libel | Rising Sun

January 26th, 2010 at 2:02 pm

[…] writes critically about those in power.” The situation has also led a Filipino editor to say: “The message we’re getting is this: no matter how responsible journalists are, you can no […]

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