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.

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