Decriminalize libel

CMFR/PHILIPPINES – The Supreme Court of the Philippines on 16 September 2008 affirmed the guilty verdict on a 1999 libel case filed by a customs official against a columnist, three editors, and the publisher of a local tabloid. Libel is a criminal offense punishable with jail terms in the Philippines.

The Court’s Second Division denied on 16 September 2008 the petitions filed by columnist and broadcaster Erwin Tulfo, editors Susan Cambri, Rey Salao, Jocelyn Barlizo, and Carlo Publishing House Inc. president Philip Pichay asking for the reversal of the decision of the Court of Appeals upholding their conviction for the libel case filed by lawyer Carlos So. So was an official of the Bureau of Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service at Manila ’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport .

So filed a libel case after Tulfo accused him of corruption and extortion several times in his “Direct Hit” column in the tabloid Remate in 1999.

On 17 November 2000, the Pasay City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 112 found Tulfo, Cambri, Salao, Barlizo, and Pichay guilty of four counts of libel.

The group appealed the decision before the Court of Appeals.  But the Court  denied their appeal on 17 June 2003 as well as their motions for reconsideration on 11 December 2003. They then filed a petition for  review  before the Supreme Court.

Tulfo and the other defendants argued in their separate petitions that both the appellate court and the Pasay City RTC “erred” in their decision holding them liable of criminal libel. Tulfo argued that the RTC should have classified his articles under “qualified privileged communication” since So is a public official, while the editors and Pichay questioned their inclusion in the case.

The Supreme Court in its 31-page decision penned by Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. explained the articles “cannot be considered as qualified privileged communication” since it did not meet the standard under the second paragraph of Article 354 of the Revised Penal Code.

“The articles clearly are not the fair and true reports contemplated by the provision. They provide no details of the acts committed by the subject, Atty. So. They are plain and simple baseless accusations, backed up by the word of one unnamed source. Good faith is lacking, as Tulfo failed to substantiate or even attempt to verify his story before publication. Tulfo goes even further to attack the character of the subject…even calling him a disgrace to his religion and the legal profession,” the decision said.

The Court also said that “(t)his is no case of mere error or honest mistake, but a case of a journalist abdicating his responsibility to verify his story and instead misinforming the public.”

Journalists are “reporters of facts, not fiction, and must be able to back up their stories with solid research. The power of the press and the corresponding duty to exercise that power judiciously cannot be understated,” the decision said.

However, the Court amended the earlier penalties imposed by the Pasay City RTC on the defendants. The RTC had earlier ordered the defendants to pay P800,000 in actual damages, P1 million in moral damages, and an additional P500,000 in exemplary damages. They were also sentenced to serve six months to four years and two months in prison for each count of libel.

“Though we find petitioners guilty of the crime charged, the punishment must still be tempered with justice…. Freedom of expression as well as freedom of the press may not be unrestrained, but neither reined in too harshly. In light of this, considering the necessity of a free press balanced with the necessity of a responsible press, the penalty of a fine of P6,000 for each count of libel, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency, should suffice.”

It said that the provision for actual damages has no basis. “There was no showing of any pecuniary loss suffered by the complainant Atty. So. Without proof of actual loss that can be measured, the award of actual damages cannot stand.” The fine for exemplary damages is also “not justified,” it added.

Another petition denied

The  Court also denied in September 2008 the petition filed by Philippine Daily Inquirer’s publisher Isagani Yambot, editor in chief Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, and correspondents Teddy Molina and Juliet Pascual to stop the Vigan RTC from hearing a libel case filed against them by lawyer Raymundo Armovit in 1996. Vigan is approximately 336 kms from Manila and is the capital of Ilocos Sur.

The libel charges stemmed from articles published in the Inquirer implying that Armovit hid his client Rolito Go when he escaped during his trial for the killing of a student. Go was later convicted.

The Inquirer reported that Yambot, Magsanoc, Molina, and Pascual had earlier petitioned for the withdrawal of the libel charges after the regional state prosecutor overturned the earlier indictment by the Ilocos Sur provincial prosecutor in 1997. But Vigan RTC Branch 21 judge Francisco Ranches – and later the appellate court – ruled that there was probable cause for the filing of the libel charges.

Yambot, Magsanoc, Molina, and Pascual brought their case before the Supreme Court saying that the Vigan RTC “should have deferred to the regional state prosecutor’s finding that no prima facie case for libel exists,” GMANews.TV reported.

The Court’s Third Division upheld in September 2008 the appellate court’s decision saying the Vigan RTC has the right to “grant or deny at its option a motion to dismiss or withdraw information based on its own assessment of the records of the preliminary investigation submitted to it, in the faithful exercise of judicial discretion and prerogative, and not out of subservience to the prosecutor,” GMANews.TV reported.

The Court also said it could not act on the other issues raised by Yambot, Magsanoc, Molina, and Pascual. “The other arguments adduced by the petitioners—that the news reports are not defamatory, are privileged in character and constitutionally protected—are all matters of defense which can be properly ventilated during the trial,” the Inquirer said, quoting the decision.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility has called for the decriminalization of libel since the early ‘90s. The Manila broadsheet BusinessWorld reports that the Senate is “crafting a bill that seeks to distinguish libel against a private person and a public officer.”


The bill amending Articles 354 and 361 of the Revised Penal Code will “scrap the fine of imprisonment only for political libel,” Senator Richard J. Gordon, chair of the committee on constitutional amendments, revision of codes and laws, told BusinessWorld.
“If a politician is attacked, presumption of malice is no longer there. Malice should now be proven by the prosecution, ” he explained.

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Affirmation of Tulfo, et al conviction and libel case vs Inquirer journalists highlights need to decriminalize libel

The Supreme Court’s affirmation of the quadruple convictions for libel of Remate columnist Erwin Tulfo, managing editor Susan Cambri, national editor Rey Salao, and city editor Jocelyn Barlizo, and Philip Pichay, president of Remate as well as the go signal it gave to the Vigan court to try the libel case against Philippine Daily Inquirer correspondents Teddy Molina and Juliet Pascual, publisher Isagani Yambot and editor in chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc highlight the need to decriminalize libel.

In the case against Tulfo, et al, the high court’s decision to impose a fine of P6,000 for each guilty finding and the payment of moral damages to the complainant, instead of allowing the convicted journalists to be jailed, shows the wisdom of decriminalizing what is essentially a draconian law that dates back to our colonial enslavement  and which was passed to stifle free speech and a free press rather than to safeguard the rights of victims of defamation.

The High Court also upheld the earlier decisions allowing the Vigan City Regional Trial court to proceed with the libel trial against the Inquirer correspondents and editors.

We note particularly the portion of the ruling that says: “Freedom of expression as well as freedom of the press may not be unrestrained, but neither must it be reined in too harshly. Lastly, the responsibilities of the members of the press notwithstanding, the difficulties and hazards they encounter in their line of work must also be taken into consideration.”

We, therefore, urge Congress to act with dispatch on libel decriminalization bills pending in both chambers, both to correct an historical anomaly and to restore the spirit of the Constitution’s admonition against laws that infringe on the freedom of the press and of speech without sacrificing the right against being defamed.

The Philippine media are far from perfect and admittedly have their own share of abusive practitioners. We take this opportunity to reiterate our call for adherence to ethics, both among journalists and media owners.

But while we would never advocate allowing unethical journalism to go unpunished, we also know from bitter experience that, in this country, our outdated libel law, which allows jail time for convictions, has been wielded by the enemies of press freedom as yet another weapon to intimidate media into silence.

It is bad enough that the country continues to rank as the second most dangerous in the world for journalists because of the number of media practitioners murdered amid a culture of impunity that official apathy and outright attempts by government to stifle press freedom have allowed to flourish.

We therefore challenge our lawmakers to set things right by striking the antediluvian law from our statute books and replace it with one that cannot be used by those who seek to cow a critical press. #

References:

Jose Torres Jr., Chairperson

Sonny Fernandez, Secretary General

Kailangan at Kailan?

Rey Tamayo, Jr.

Ikaw ay ginipit nang laksang sanggano,

Pinasamang pilit ng mga berdugo.

Ang dulot ay pait sa sariling mundo,

Ligaya’y ginupit ng hidwaa’t gulo.

Tinangkang patayin ang aba mong buhay,

Isang libong pain kan’lang inilagay.

Budhi’t pagkatao’y nais maging bangkay-

At ang prinsipyo mo’y, ilibing sa hukay.

Ang mga kalaban hindi tumitigil-

Gawang kasamaan ang hangad at dahil.

Nais mang lumaban tiyak may pipigil,

Ang dangal ng bayan ang siyang susupil.

Bagsik ng espada ang dulot ay hidwa,

Aklasan ng madla’y di dapat mag gera.

Kaya’t umiwas ka, sa punglo’t sandata!

At itong pag-asa’y kelan mabibista?

Pacman’s rematch in politics

Anthony Chua

After the much awaited match with boxing legend Oscar dela Hoya, plus a couple more, Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao says he’s willing to shift his career from being a pugilist to become a statesman.

The world’s current best pound-for-pound ring fighter announced his retirement on August 2009. But his handlers assure Pacquiao fans that his permanent stepping off the ring will leave indelible memories in the history of the sport. His last three fights: the mega bout against Dela Hoya scheduled on Dec. 6 followed by still to be scheduled fights against Ricky Hatton in March or April, and his predecessor as pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr., who retired undefeated early this year, by July or August next year.

Pacquiao delivered his statement after officially swearing in as a member of Pres. Arroyo’s political party, Kampi. The party officials cheered for Pacquiao’s decision, saying that Pacman is a “plus factor” for the administration party.

The boxer has already attempted to engage in politics as he ran yet lost to Darlene Antonino-Custodio for a seat to represent the first district of South Cotabato in the House last May 2007. The Pambansang Kamao (National Fist) attributed his loss to his lack of time in campaigning because of his preparations for his match against Juan Manuel Marquez in 2007.

Pacquiao has already established himself as a boxing hero and a pop icon in the hearts of Filipinos. He has shown his ability to curb crime and unite the Pinoys worldwide as his kababayans watched his matches and cheered with patriotic pride while watching him wave the Philippine flag after defeating his opponents. Indeed he has exuded the charisma and the power required by politicians in their field.

Yet the entire Filipino race is wary of Pacquiao’s decision. The reputation that he has established “by blood and sweat” could be tarnished or deprecated by his entry into Philippine politics. Remember, he is running for a position in one of the most corrupt governments in Asia. And that, ladies and gentlemen, people of all ages, will be tougher fight for the Pacman.

The Philippines has already kicked out the former president Joseph Estrada, himself an entertainment icon who won by a landslide, because of corrupt and immoral practices. Whether or not Estrada had really been lured by the pomp and prosperity that corrupt government practices gives; the fact remains that the culture of corruption in this country is very much alive and kicking; and powerful enough to contaminate the once upright souls who initially assumed office for the love of serving their countrymen.

In Pacquiao’s case, the entire Filipino race believes that he has the will to spearhead a more upright Philippine political ring. The world has proven that boxing has taught Pacquiao the skills and savvy on how to crush his opponent and the discipline needed to use them properly. His training could be used to knockout the evil practices that has infested the Filipino values in politics.

That would only be possible if he won’t give in to the temptation of amassing more wealth, prestige and power than what he will receive from his next three super fights.

ASSAULT ON THE PUBLIC’S RIGHT TO KNOW

The Supreme Court‘s affirmation of its March 25 decision in favor of executive privilege undermines the public interest function of the press to provide information to a citizenry that has a right to it on matters of public concern.  Even more dangerously it also erodes the democratic imperative of transparency in governance.

By expanding the coverage of executive privilege to include communications authored or solicited and received by a presidential advisor, in this case then National Economic and Development Authority Director General Romulo Neri, the Court has legitimized government secrecy to an extent yet to be established by practice.

The Court also affirmed that executive privilege includes information on presidential decisions as well as the materials that were discussed prior to those decisions, thus enabling  the president and/or his/her advisers to use executive privilege to  conceal information on corruption and other forms of official  wrongdoing from the Senate, the press and the public.

The impact on the public’s right to know and on the basic responsibility of the press to provide such information is obvious. But it is equally relevant to the health and future of democracy. If no information can be obtained because of executive privilege, then no information vital to the exercise of the sovereign right of the people in a democracy to decide on policy and other governance issues can be made available.

Oddly in conflict with the impending passage of a bill on public and press access to government information, the decision also strikes at the heart of the imperative for transparency in the affairs of a government in which corruption has so metastasized that it now afflicts it from top to bottom. Vital in the fight against corruption, transparency is the only weapon available to citizens to assure honesty in governance. By in effect providing the legal basis for the de facto reversal of that policy, the court has made that fight even more difficult and problematic.

To meet the challenge posed by the expansion of executive privilege, journalists will have to exert greater efforts to get at the truth of government transactions, policies and actions.  As in the dying days of the Marcos regime, the need of the hour is for a journalism firmly committed to the truth- telling necessary in a democracy and vital to a sovereign people’s capacity to hold governments accountable.  We call on our colleagues in the press to transcend through practice that’s both vigilant as well as responsible the limits the Supreme Court decision has imposed on the public’s right to information.

Preliminary hearing on Cuesta case set Friday at DOJ

The Department of Justice on Friday will hold a preliminary hearing on the killing of RMN broadcaster Dennis Cuesta.

The hearing is set at 2 p.m. Friday, September 12, 2008, at the Department of Justice in Manila.

The journalist’s widow, Gloria Cuesta, will testify in the hearing.

Cuesta was shot on August 4, 2008, in General Santos City by motorcycle-riding gunmen. He sustained fatal wounds on the head and body. He fell into coma and died five days after the shooting.

A murder case has been filed last month before the Justice department against Senior Inspector Redempto “Boy” Acharon, Sr. after witnesses identified him as the gunman.

Director General Avelino Razon, National Police chief, has issued orders for Acharon’s administrative relief and for him to be brought to the Custodial Detention Center in Camp Crame pending the formal filing of an administrative case.

Reports from the field, however, revealed that Acharon remains free and is still in General Santos City.

Cuesta used to anchor the public affairs program “Straight to the Point” and was known for his commentaries on controversial issues like illegal gambling, graft and corruption in government and illegal drugs.

He was the fifth journalist killed this year and the 60th since 2001. #

IFJ-NUJP Media Safety Office

What press freedom?

NUJP- In a speech at the founding anniversary of Quirino province on Wednesday, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo again took a swipe at the Philippine media, saying it was “challenging…to govern our nation, especially with a media that is the freest in the whole world, as it was during my father’s presidency,”

The NUJP takes exception to Mrs. Arroyo’s statement on two points.

First, maybe the President should address her description of “freest media in the world” to the widows and orphans of the 60 Filipino journalists murdered since she ascended into power in 2001.

We again call attention to that fact that this is the highest death toll for the Philippine media under any sitting president, including the late Ferdinand Marcos, who was dictator for 14 years. It is also a toll almost double that of all three presidents preceding Mrs. Arroyo.

It was also under the present administration that the Philippines was, for three years running, declared the “most murderous” country in the world to practice journalism. Most murderous because, unlike war-torn Iraq – still the most dangerous in the world – where being caught in the crossfire is a daily risk, in this country, journalists are deliberately targeted for the most extreme form of censorship.

Time and again, we have pointed out that this is so because of the culture of impunity this government helps nurture in two ways – by its law enforcers’ failure to solve the bulk of the cases or get the masterminds in the handful of murders where the perpetrators have been caught or prosecuted; and by actually attempting to curtail press freedom, as it did during the February 2006 state of emergency and in last year’s mass arrest of journalists during the Manila Peninsula incident, or the many pronouncements and threats by ranking government officials.

Which brings us to the second point that disturbs us, that a president of a supposedly democratic society should find it “challenging” to govern with what she herself describes as “media that is the freest in the whole world.”

We are afraid that such statement can only worsen the climate of impunity as it may very well be taken by those who would seek to silence individual journalists or the Philippine media as a tacit endorsement of nefarious plans.

While we are at it, we will concede that the Philippine media are far from perfect. Neither are journalists saints.

The patterns of media ownership – meaning the many vested interests that own or control media organizations – and the widespread disregard of many media outfits for their personnel’s economic, professional and physical welfare, especially of the provincial correspondents who are most often in the frontlines of repression, also serve to undermine the full realization of press freedom in our country.

The poor working and economic conditions under which many of our colleagues labor, abetted by the media owners’ failure to look at the professional advancement of practitioners, has also given rise to many ethical issues.

Despite these problems, most Filipino journalists and many media organizations continue to perform their duty of delivering the information that is crucial to empowering our people as they make decisions about their individual and collective lives, even as they stand up to and fend off all attempts to curtail press freedom.

Indeed, if the Philippine media are, as Mrs. Arroyo describes them, the “freest in the whole world,” it is no thanks to her or her administration but to the continued vigilance of the independent press and journalists and the people they serve.#

Jose Torres Jr., Chairperson
Sonny Fernandez,  Secretary General