Law abiding and lawless

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A conference among lawyers and journalists from several Asian countries including the Philippines is concluding in Cebu. Sponsored by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) through the London-based Open Society Institute, it is the second gathering of its kind. The first was held in Hongkong two years ago and examined the legal environments in the varied legal and political contexts in which journalists have to function in Asia.

The Cebu meeting has been looking into, among other topics, the ways in which lawyers and journalists have been cooperating to defend and advance free expression in Asia. Among the cases the conference looked into which has the potential to help besieged journalists cope with state repression elsewhere was the class suit filed by journalists and media organizations against Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo in 2006.

He was already suing journalists for libel in 2003, or two years after his wife came to power, but it was only after May 2004 when Mr. Arroyo started filing libel suits wholesale. The year 2004 was when the “Hello Garci” scandal took place, and judging from the subjects of some of the articles written by those he sued, there was a connection.

The “Hello Garci” scandal was the stuff of numerous reports, commentaries and investigative reports which included such gems as: (1) “Poe’s camp says Mike is cheating operator” (2.) “How do you solve a problem like Mike Arroyo?”(3.) “El Esposo Gordo (The Fat Husband)”; and (4.) “Mike didn’t go to Marawi? Tell that to the Marines”

By 2006 Mr. Arroyo had filed 11 libel suits against 46 journalists, including not only the authors of the above reports but also several others, as well as their editors and publishers, desk people, and anyone else with any connection to the writing and publication of the articles. Obviously Mr. Arroyo did not like the media attention.

In some cases the reporters he sued had close calls: they were nearly arrested in their places of work on a late Friday afternoon or early evening when they could no longer make bail and would have had to spend the weekend in that modern-day horror, a Philippine jail.

Having someone arrested on a libel charge on a late Friday afternoon or early evening has become part of the arsenal of those public figures who don’t particularly like being the subject of a press report or comment, and is one of the reasons why a criminal libel suit is feared in these parts. Not only can one go to jail upon conviction for libel; one can go to jail even before, pending making bail or while the trial’s ongoing. Libel’s being a criminal offense does not prevent judges from imposing fines, often steep enough to ruin anyone for life, on supposed offenders.

Mr. Arroyo’s libel suits were filed to silence the press in a country where press freedom had supposedly been restored 23 years ago; which has a Constitution that can rank among the most liberal in the world; and where the Supreme Court has again and again affirmed that “the interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs.”

What’s been obvious in every administration since that of Ferdinand Marcos is that there’s a contradiction between the country’s laws on free expression on the one hand and on the other the antipathy of officialdom to journalists’ discharging the essential task of providing the citizenry the information it needs on public issues.

Resolving that contradiction is at the heart of the efforts of academics, members of civil society and journalists to defend and enhance press freedom. The decision to take Mr. Arroyo to court — based on the “catch-all” (University of the Philippines law professor Harry Roque’s phrase) provision of the New Civil Code that reads, “Every person must, in the exercise of his rights and in the performance of his duties, act with justice, give everyone his due, and observe honesty and good faith” — was part of that effort. Most of the journalists sued by Mr. Arroyo as well as others who saw the cases he had filed as attempts to intimidate and silence the press thus joined the class suit.

The suit was not only the first of its kind, in which those sued had also become the suer; it also brought together the more responsible sectors of the press and media communities; it demonstrated that journalists and lawyers can and should stand together in the defense of press freedom; and suggested that the law may not always be on the side of the powerful, who are so sure that they can get away with the most egregious violations of the law and even of the Constitution they habitually challenge anyone who questions their acts and decisions to go to the courts.

Most Filipinos, and not just journalists, are wary of the law, which when it pertains to such aspects of life in these islands as human rights and government accountability is so often observed more in the breach than the observance. But Article III Section 4 is still there for the citing whenever free expression and press freedom are threatened — or at least until it is amended by Mrs. Arroyo’s allies in the House of Representatives.

Unlike in some other countries of Asia, the fight for press freedom in the Philippines is first of all a fight for the observance of Philippine laws, not for its enshrinement in the statutes, because it is already there. This does not preclude seeking the broadening of press freedom’s exercise. But because official respect for press freedom is so often wanting, press freedom advocates have been forced to fight for what the law already grants and protects.

The particularities of the Philippine situation which make the defense of press freedom extremely interesting in these islands of contradiction are, among others, the existence of liberal laws protective of press freedom, side by side with politicians and officials who, despite their pious claims that they’re all for press freedom, don’t want the press to expose what they’re doing, and are therefore hostile to it and constantly looking for ways to subvert it. The journalists who’ve gone to the courts in defense of press freedom may be among the most law-abiding people in these parts, and Philippine officials the most lawless.

Luis V. Teodoro is a member of the board of directors of SEAPA

(BusinessWorld)

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