CMFR Alert: Journalists file suits to stop threats; court issues order against harassment

 

CMFR/Philippines—Over a hundred journalists filed two separate suits on 28 January 2008 in a unified effort to halt government threats against the press as well as further arrests.

            Makati City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Executive Judge Winlove Dumayas granted a 72-hour temporary restraining order (TRO) barring the police, military, and other government offices, from issuing “threats of arrests or from implementing such threats” against the media.

            The TRO was issued just two hours after 36 journalists and four media organizations including the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) filed a civil case before the Makati RTC asking for an injunction or TRO against police, military, and other government officials, and demanding Php 10 M ($245, 600) in damages. If the case prospers, the petitioners will put the amount in a trust fund for the defense and protection of press freedom.

            The four media organizations in the class suit filed before the Makati RTC are the CMFR, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and the Philippine Press Institute (PPI).

            The Southeast Asian Press Alliance, of which CMFR and PCIJ are founding members, provided financial assistance for the filing fees.

            “(C)onsidering the extreme urgency, and that great and irreparable injury would result to the Plaintiffs before the matter can be heard on notice, the (TRO) is hereby Granted,”  Dumayas said in his decision.

            Another 81 journalists filed another case before the Supreme Court on the same day asking for a writ of prohibition and injunction to stop the Arroyo government from threatening, arresting, or imposing any form of prior restraint on the press.

            Both suits, although filed before two separate courts, are part of coordinated efforts by the press in response to the wholesale arrest of over 30 journalists/media practitioners who covered the 29 November 2007 Manila Pen siege, and other similar forms of intimidation which followed the event. A joint press conference was conducted by the petitioners in both cases after the suits were filed.

            After the Manila Pen arrests, Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno said in a 5 December 2007 dialogue between the government and media that the journalists were arrested for refusing to follow standard operating procedures of the police.

            Puno said that journalists could be arrested again if they continued to refuse orders in covering similar events. On 11 January 2008, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez issued an advisory to the different media organizations warning them that they risk “criminal liabilities” if they disobey government orders “during emergencies.”           On 16 January 2008, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Avelino Razon told reporters that a journalist helped one of the rebels escape from the Manila Pen and that she could face charges of aiding and abetting a criminal as well as rebellion.

            Seventy journalists/media practitioners have also been killed in the line of duty in the Philippines since democracy was restored in 1986. Of the 33 journalist killings that occurred during the present regime of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, only two have resulted in a conviction.

            An anti-terror law with dangerous implications on press freedom was also signed by Ms. Arroyo into law on 6 March 2007. She also issued an executive order on 20 April 2007 which further restricts public access to information.

            “These are uncertain times for the press. Unless we do something about it, the next crisis situation will see journalists again arrested or worse, and charged with abetting rebellion or some other such offense reminiscent of the martial law catch-all of subversion,” CMFR deputy director Luis Teodoro said in a statement during the press conference.

            “The plaintiffs emphasize that while two suits have been filed, the press community is one in condemning the campaign to silence the press,” Teodoro said.

            ABS-CBN news and current affairs head Maria Ressa, representing the group that filed the case at the Supreme court, read the group’s statement saying “(o)ur objective is not just relief, but for the Supreme Court to help us correct the current situation where, we believe, press freedom is being constantly redefined and constrained.”  ABS-CBN is the largest media conglomerate in the Philippines. It is mainly engaged in TV and radio broadcasting.

            “If our country is to remain the democracy we reclaimed in 1986, then, we, as journalists should be allowed to exercise our professions, reporting events as they happen, when they happen,” Ressa said.

            The respondents in the case now pending before the Makati RTC are Puno, Gonzalez, Razon, Department of Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, National Capital Region Police Office Chief Geary Barias, Chief Superintendent Luizo Ticman, PNP Special Action Force Director Leocadio Santiago, Jr., PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group head Asher Dolina, and Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief. Hermogenes Esperon.

            The respondents in the Supreme Court case are almost the same except for Ticman and Santiago. The case also includes Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita among the respondents.

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Dumaguete journalist, mayor swap civil suits

DUMAGUETE CITY, Philippines — A newspaper columnist here has demanded an apology from Dumaguete City Mayor Agustin Perdices in exchange for dropping his civil suit against the mayor for violation of press freedom rights.

Columnist Dindo Generoso of the weekly paper The Negros Chronicle made the demand on January 23 during a pre-trial of a counter-suit he filed against Perdices last November.

Generoso filed the counter suit after Perdices sued him and asked for a written apology over a column he wrote shortly after the May 2007 elections.

In the same pre-trial hearing last week, Perdices’ lawyer Dean Myles Nicolas Bejar of the Silliman College of Law, said that if Generoso would issue a written apology for a column he wrote after the elections, the mayor might be willing to settle a P300,000-damage suit against Generoso.

Perdices filed the civil case for damages against Generoso, on June 1, 2007, over his May 20, 2007 column that claimed that mayoralty candidate Arturo Umbac, who ran against Perdices, was robbed of victory in the last elections.

Generoso wrote that Perdices was only less than a hundred votes ahead of Umbac during the canvassing of the votes until the board of election canvassers took a 12-hour break. A brownout occurred during the break and when the canvassing resumed, Perdices’ lead widened by more than 4,000 votes, according to Generoso’s column.

“Until this can be sufficiently explained, this columnist believes that Mr. Arturo Umbac has been robbed of his apparent road to victory in the last elections,” Generoso wrote.

Perdices said Generoso’s comment was “no longer a criticism but a direct accusation” that he manipulated the election.

The mayor said that he initially wanted an apology but he decided to push through with the case after he saw a draft of Generoso’s next column, which called for his resignation.

Lawyer Bejar explained that they initially planned to file a libel case against Generoso but the latter was living in Sydney, Australia, at the time. So, they decided to file a civil case instead for Abuse of Rights and Damages under Articles 19, 20 and 21 of the Civil Code, Bejar said. Generoso has since moved back to the country.

Article 19 of the Civil Code provides that a person must act with justice, give everyone his due and observe honesty and good faith in the exercise of his rights.

Articles 20 and 21 also require a person who causes damage to another to compensate the latter for the damage.

But Generoso’s lawyer, Jay Dejaresco, said the case filed by Perdices was pure harassment and was an act unbefitting a public servant whose salary was paid for by taxpayer’s money.

Dejaresco called on the mayor to accept Generoso’s demand so that the case could be settled at the earliest time.

He noted that journalists had legal remedy against public officials who harassed them in court.

The Civil Code would hold liable any public official who would violate any person’s constitutional rights, including press freedom, Dejaresco said.

He said the case filed against Perdices was anchored on Article 32-6 of the Civil Code, which guaranteed the freedom to write for the press. Generoso also asked for damages of P300,000, the limit set by the city courts, Dejaresco added.

(IFJ-NUJP Media Safety Office)

Broadcaster jailed for libel

A provincial radio commentator has been over a week in jail after being arrested on 22 January 2008 for failing to attend court hearings. No bail was recommended for his release.

Julito “Lito” Ucab, a freelance radio commentator in Cagayan de Oro, is now behind bars in the Butuan City Jail for failure to attend court hearings on a libel case filed against him in 2004 by a former employee of the Butuan City Architect’s Office for his commentaries on the alleged involvement of a government employee in a rape incident. Butuan City is a province approximately 790 km south of Manila.

Ucab had been unable to attend court hearings since 2006 when he was granted provisional liberty by the court after posting P20, 000 ($490.32) for bail.

Ucab was formerly based in Butuan city, where the libel case was filed. He was arrested in Cagayan de Oro City, where he moved in 2006.

Ucab, according to Cagayan de Oro Press Club president Jerry Orcullo, allowed a maid to air accusations of rape against the official in his program over dxBC, a Butuan City-based radio station affiliated with Radio Mindanao Network. Ucab was also dxBC program manager.

Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) operatives in Misamis Oriental served the “alias warrant of arrest,” which courts issue when an accused fails to attended court hearings, in Cagayan de Oro. Ucab works as a “blocktimer” at dxCO Radyo Banat in Cagayan de Oro prior to his arrest. “Blocktimers” buy radio air time to run their own programs.

Libel is a criminal offense in the Philippines. Since the early 1990s, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility has been campaigning for the decriminalization of libel. Crippling fines and the threat of imprisonment for criminal libel have been repeatedly used by powerful individuals to harass and intimidate the press.

 

CHIEF JUSTICE’S CIRCULAR A CLARION CALL FOR CONGRESS TO PASS BILL DECRIMINALIZING LIBEL

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Q. Pimentel, Jr. (PDP-Laban) today batted anew for the passage of the bill decriminalizing libel following the issuance by Chief Justice Reynato Puno of a circular advising judges all over the country to refrain from imposing jail sentence on journalists and other persons convicted of libel.

Pimentel said the Puno circular is a virtual clarion call to Congress to legislate a new libel law in which people found guilty of libel will be meted out fine instead of imprisonment.

He requested Sen. Francis Escudero, Chairman of the Committee on Justice and Human Rights, to convene a public hearing on the pending bills to decriminalize libel and to ready the measure for plenary deliberation.

“The Senate should pass the bill decriminalizing libel. This is not a matter of personal advocacy. This is a matter of logic and reason because the country’s libel law is antiquated,” the minority leader said.

“And if you go by the example of many civilized countries in the world today, the United States included, they don’t jail people anymore for libel.”

The Revised Penal Code of the Philippines defines libel as “a public and malicious imputation of a crime vice or defect, whether real or not, tending to cause the dishonor of a person or to blacken the memory of the dead.”

Explaining the rationale behind the circular, Puno said: “If you review the cases of libel, you will find out that a lot of times, the act is committed with honest intentions. Therefore, a member of the media who commits this kind of an act, to our mind, need not be penalized by imprisonment.”

The Chief Justice further said that the payment of a fine “would already satisfy the intent of the law to punish the culprit.”

Pimentel noted that Puno was very emphatic in clarifying that despite the issuance of the circular, libel remains a crime unless Congress enacts a law decriminalizing libel. He said this means the circular does not remove the discretion of the Judge to impose a jail sentence on the guilty party or parties, depending on the gravity of the offense and the circumstances.

Thus, the Chief Justice stated that the circular was an “interim measure” intended to aid the media practitioners while Congress is deliberating on the bill to decriminalize libel.

Pimentel said Puno was also careful to point out that the circular was by no means intended to amend the provisions of the Revised Penal Code on libel.

At the same time, the senator from Mindanao sought the approval by Congress of a companion measure to the decriminalization of libel – the grant of the right to reply to people unduly criticized or maliciously maligned in the media.

“The main idea behind the bill is to make it a legal obligation of newspapers, radio and television stations to print or broadcast the replies of individuals who are on the receiving end of their tirades,” Pimentel said.

He said that by imposing on media practitioners the legal duty to publish or broadcast the response or reaction of aggrieved or offended parties, this would lessen the possibility of the latter resorting to violence.

KIKO PUSHES FOR AMENDMENTS ON THE EXISTING LIBEL LAW

Senate Majority Leader and Independent senator Kiko Pangilinan is willing to spearhead the move to amend the existing libel law following Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s suggestion that judges should prefer imposing a fine rather than imprisonment on erring journalists. “Having been a former mediaman myself, I understand the plight of practitioners. Libel suits are oftentimes used to harass and intimidate the media. In effect, there is an indirect but apparent method of curtailing press freedom through unwarranted libel suits,” Kiko said.

Chief Justice Puno earlier issued a memorandum circular to judges urging them to mete out fine as penalty for media people found guilty of libel, instead of jail time.”The existing libel law has been in the statute books for almost 80 years, and remains essentially unchanged. The current libel law is a vestige of our colonial past. We should amend the said law to be compatible with constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech, of expression, and of the press,” Kiko furthers. Kiko however clarifies that this does not mean that the press should be without limitations.”The rights to free speech and of the press are attended with an obligation on the part of the journalists to report accurately, fairly and with factual basis,” The media on the other hand must strengthen their mechanisms for self regulation so that parties who feel aggrieved due to abuses or irresponsible and unprofessional conduct by the media can have speedy redress’ Kiko ended.

ENOUGH

Today, January 28, the Philippine media say “Enough!” to continued attempts by government to muzzle us.

The class suit we filed before the Makati RTC and the separate petition filed by other colleagues before the Supreme Court signal that the Philippine media shall no longer be content with condemning or reporting on repeated attempts to curtail press freedom.

Today, journalists have acted in defense not only of their right to pursue their profession but, more important, their duty to serve the people’s right to accurate information about current events.

Today, we warn all those who would use and abuse the power that the people entrusted in them by cloaking the truth from the people, that we can and we will back our words with action whenever our and the people’s rights and liberties are threatened and assaulted.

References:
Joe Torres Jr., NUJP chair
Rowena Paraan, NUJP secretary general
FYI: Class Suit Petitioners, as of Jan. 28, 2008 (Although NUJP has already received reports that more journalists from the provinces have joined — at least 16 from Subic, 20 from Lucena, and 25 from Davao/Kidapawan).

INDIVIDUAL PETITIONERS

  1. Ellen T. Tordesillas (columnist, Malaya)
  2. Charmaine Deogracias (Manila correspondent, NHK)
  3. Ashzel Hachero (reporter, Malaya)
  4. James Konstantin Galvez (reporter, Manila Times)
  5. Leticia Z. Boniol (desk editor, Philippine Daily Inquirer)
  6. Marlon Ramos (reporter, Philippine Daily Inquirer)
  7. Jessica Soho (vice president, GMA 7 News and Public Affairs)
  8. Maria Judea Pulido (reporter, GMA-7)
  9. Michael Fajatin (reporter, GMA-7)
  10. Connie Sison (reporter, GMA-7)
  11. Rawnna Crisostomo (reporter, GMA-7)
  12. J.P. Soriano (reporter, GMA-7)
  13. Gena Balaoro (reporter, GMA-7)
  14. Michelle Seva (reporter, GMA-7)
  15. Leilani Alvis (reporter, GMA-7)
  16. Ed Lingao (news director, ABC-5)
  17. Manolito C. Gaya (ABC-5)
  18. Erel A. Cabatbat (ABC-5)
  19. Vincent Cristobal (ABC-5)
  20. Jesus D. Ramos (ABC-5)
  21. Michael C. Carreon (ABC-5)
  22. Ed De Guzman (ABC-5)
  23. Melinda Quintos De Jesus (Executive Director of CMFR)
  24. Luis V. Teodoro (Deputy Director of CMFR)
  25. Booma B.  Cruz (PCIJ)
  26. Vergel O. Santos (chairperson of the editorial board of BusinessWorld).
  27. Yvonne T. Chua (UP College of Mass Communication – Diliman, Quezon City)
  28. Roby Alampay (Executive Director of the South East Asian Press Alliance)
  29. Danilo Arao (Bulatlat.com and PinoyWeekly)
  30. Lourdes Simbulan (UP College of Mass Communication – Diliman, Quezon City)
  31. Rowena C. Paraan (secretary general, NUJP)
  32. Iris C. Gonzales (BusinessWorld)
  33. Maria Cristina V. Rodriquez (freelance journalist)
  34. Leah Flor (Philippine Cable Television)
  35. Ma. Aurora Reyes Fajardo (freelance journalist)
  36. Elizabeth Judith C. Panelo (Bulatlat.com)
  37. Angel Ayala (dwAD, NUJP)
  38. Nilo Baculo Sr. (Calapan City, Oriental Mindoro)

ORGANIZATIONS

  1. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP)
  2. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)
  3. Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)
  4. Philippine Press Institute (PPI)

Journalists file suits to stop threats; court issues order against harassment

CMFR/Philippines— Over a hundred journalists filed two separate suits on 28 January 2008 in a unified effort to halt government threats against the press as well as further arrests.

            Makati City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Executive Judge Winlove Dumayas granted a 72-hour temporary restraining order (TRO) barring the police, military, and other government offices, from issuing “threats of arrests or from implementing such threats” against the media.

            The TRO was issued just two hours after 36 journalists and four media organizations including the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) filed a civil case before the Makati RTC asking for an injunction or TRO against police, military, and other government officials, and demanding Php 10 M ($245, 600) in damages. If the case prospers, the petitioners will put the amount in a trust fund for the defense and protection of press freedom.

            The four media organizations in the class suit filed before the Makati RTC are the CMFR, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and the Philippine Press Institute (PPI).

            The Southeast Asian Press Alliance, of which CMFR and PCIJ are founding members, provided financial assistance for the filing fees.

            “(C)onsidering the extreme urgency, and that great and irreparable injury would result to the Plaintiffs before the matter can be heard on notice, the (TRO) is hereby Granted,”  Dumayas said in his decision.

            Another 81 journalists filed another case before the Supreme Court on the same day asking for a writ of prohibition and injunction to stop the Arroyo government from threatening, arresting, or imposing any form of prior restraint on the press.

            Both suits, although filed before two separate courts, are part of coordinated efforts by the press in response to the wholesale arrest of over 30 journalists/ media practitioners who covered the 29 November 2007 Manila Pen siege, and other similar forms of intimidation which followed the event. A joint press conference was conducted by the petitioners in both cases after the suits were filed.

            After the Manila Pen arrests, Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno said in a 5 December 2007 dialogue between the government and media that the journalists were arrested for refusing to follow standard operating procedures of the police.

            Puno said that journalists could be arrested again if they continued to refuse orders in covering similar events. On 11 January 2008, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez issued an advisory to the different media organizations warning them that they risk “criminal liabilities” if they disobey government orders “during emergencies. ”            On 16 January 2008, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Avelino Razon told reporters that a journalist helped one of the rebels escape from the Manila Pen and that she could face charges of aiding and abetting a criminal as well as rebellion.

            Seventy journalists/ media practitioners have also been killed in the line of duty in the Philippines since democracy was restored in 1986. Of the 33 journalist killings that occurred during the present regime of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, only two have resulted in a conviction.

            An anti-terror law with dangerous implications on press freedom was also signed by Ms. Arroyo into law on 6 March 2007. She also issued an executive order on 20 April 2007 which further restricts public access to information.

            “These are uncertain times for the press. Unless we do something about it, the next crisis situation will see journalists again arrested or worse, and charged with abetting rebellion or some other such offense reminiscent of the martial law catch-all of subversion,” CMFR deputy director Luis Teodoro said in a statement during the press conference.

            “The plaintiffs emphasize that while two suits have been filed, the press community is one in condemning the campaign to silence the press,” Teodoro said.

            ABS-CBN news and current affairs head Maria Ressa, representing the group that filed the case at the Supreme court, read the group’s statement saying “(o)ur objective is not just relief, but for the Supreme Court to help us correct the current situation where, we believe, press freedom is being constantly redefined and constrained. ”  ABS-CBN is the largest media conglomerate in the Philippines. It is mainly engaged in TV and radio broadcasting.

            “If our country is to remain the democracy we reclaimed in 1986, then, we, as journalists should be allowed to exercise our professions, reporting events as they happen, when they happen,” Ressa said.

            The respondents in the case now pending before the Makati RTC are Puno, Gonzalez, Razon, Department of Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, National Capital Region Police Office Chief Geary Barias, Chief Superintendent Luizo Ticman, PNP Special Action Force Director Leocadio Santiago, Jr., PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group head Asher Dolina, and Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief. Hermogenes Esperon.

            The respondents in the Supreme Court case are almost the same except for Ticman and Santiago. The case also includes Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita among the respondents.