Decriminalizing libel

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Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye wasn’t quite being candid when he said that Malacanang had “no position” on the decriminalization of the Philippine libel law. Malacanang’s not having a position on the issue is itself a position. It amounts to a position in favor of the status quo.

The status quo as far as the libel law (see Articles 353-359 of the Revised Penal Code) is concerned is that libel is a criminal offense punishable with prison terms that seem to have no limit except the judge’s imagination. The courts have also tended, not only in recent times but in past cases as well, to award crippling claims for damages to complainants in accompanying civil complaints.

Libel suits are among the perils all journalists face in this and many other countries including those where press freedom is officially the policy. While there are journalists in the Philippines who glory in the number of libel suits that have been filed against them, they are rapidly shrinking into a tiny minority.

Libel suits used to be virtual medals some practitioners displayed as proof that they’re effective and what they’re doing important enough to provoke the subjects of their reports into suing them. The comfortable assumption was that libel suits would not flourish because the press and the media were institutions too powerful for even the courts and Malacanang to antagonize.

This arrogant assumption–too many journalists believe they’re a power in themselves– thought that the democratic space that had followed the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986 would last forever. It didn’t.

The constriction of that space as far as the media were concerned began in 1986 with the killing of journalists. It continued in other forms during the last years of the Aquino government, when Mrs. Aquino filed a libel suit against the late columnist Luis Beltran who had playfully (and erroneously) declared in his column that Mrs. Aquino hid under her bed during a coup attempt against her government.

The Court of Appeals reversed the Beltran conviction by a lower court, but the filing of that suit did set a worrisome precedent. Mrs. Aquino was after all the President of the Philippines, and had all the advantages on her side, including the fact that she had appointed the judge in whose court the suit had been originally filed.

In the years that followed, government officials filed a number of libel suits against journalists demanding millions of pesos in damages. Because these suits did not prosper, or dragged on without any conclusion, the journalism community remained mostly complacent.

But libel remained a criminal offense that in addition to prison terms allowed judges to impose what amounted to excessive fines in civil suits. It was a weapon awaiting use in more repressive times. In the meantime, it made media harassment possible through the filing of charges anywhere a newspaper is circulated, or a TV or radio broadcast is heard and/or seen.

If it had prospered, former President Joseph Estrada’s P100 million libel suit against the Manila Times in 1999 would have crippled the corporation that owned the Times. Estrada withdrew the suit after an apology from the owners, but it did have the effect of forcing them to sell the newspaper to an Estrada associate, in addition to the fear it engendered among journalists (who feared prison terms and the payment of damages in civil suits) as well as media organizations (which feared bankruptcy).

Recent events suggest that libel has become the weapon of choice against the media. It is not only contributing to the constriction of democratic space orchestrated by the Arroyo regime. It also shows how far the country had gone down the road of repression.

The Court of Appeals affirmed last July 31 the conviction of tabloid columnist and TV broadcaster Raffy Tulfo for libel, as well as the penalty imposed by a lower court. Tulfo was sentenced to 32 years in prison and a P14.7 million fine for 14 counts of libel arising from several articles he wrote about a decade ago on the alleged involvement in smuggling of a customs officer.

Other officials and public figures including former President Estrada have filed their own –multi-million libel suits against journalists. But leading the pack is Jose Miguel Arroyo, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband, who has filed 43 libel suits against newspaper reporters, columnists, editors and publishers.

The International Federation of Journalists has correctly described what’s happening in the Philippines as “a deliberate attempt to undermine press freedom” through the use of an “outdated” law. And the libel law is indeed outdated, libel having been decriminalized in the United States–whose jurisprudence Philippine courts regard as precedents–in 1963, or 43 years ago.

Outdated or not, the libel law in its present form is likely to remain in place, despite–or because of–its being a convenient tool of repression. Of course the Palace has “no position” on the decriminalization of libel. The present law suits it just fine.

(Business Mirror)

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