Libel’s perils

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IN 1989, a libel suit filed by then President Corazon Aquino against Philippine Star columnist Luis Beltran alarmed press freedom groups. In a column on the failed 1989 coup, Beltran had playfully (and inaccurately) described Mrs. Aquino as the first commander-in-chief in the country’s history to hide under a bed during the attempted assault on Malacanang by Gringo Honasan’s putschist gang.

Beltran’s offense was on the face of it not so much libelous as sexist: it was much easier to make fun of a woman President by taking liberties with the facts rather than granting her the respect her office deserved. Years later, Beltran would be tongue-tied when Fidel Ramos called his radio program to berate him about his supposed inaccuracies when reporting on Ramos’ most recent appointments. But tongue-tied he wasn’t in 1989. Apparently he assumed then that Mrs. Aquino would not be offended by his “hid-under-the bed” remark, cowardice under fire being, in most macho men’s view, an acceptable female attribute.

Mrs. Aquino did take offense, however, and repudiated the column’s sexist assumption by asserting that she was also commander-in-chief, which was what really mattered. She rejected all subsequent apologies — so abject they were described as “groveling” by one observer — from Beltran as well as his former newspaper, sued Beltran and company, and what’s more stood as her own witness in a televised court hearing. Beltran was subsequently convicted, but appealed the conviction. His death in 1994 closed the case.

But in 1990 the alarm had nothing to do with the merits of Mrs. Aquino’s case, but with what it could signal. Coming so soon after the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship, and during the term of someone who had vowed to be Marcos’ exact opposite, the fear was that both the suit itself as well the Beltran conviction would intimidate the media and establish a precedent in which Presidents — armed with such undeniable advantages as their power to appoint judges — would henceforth go after journalists whose work they didn’t like, or whom they just didn’t like, period.

One of the results of this fear was a spate of workshops and seminars on libel law in which media groups sought to broaden journalists’ understanding of libel as well as find solutions to what was then perceived as the libel law’s potential for the harassment of dissenting journalists. One of the recommendations of the libel lawyers in a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility at the Development Academy of the Philippines was for the decriminalization of libel, which under Philippine law carries both a fine as well as a jail term in case of conviction.

Although decisions by both the Supreme Court and lower courts have since tended to favor a liberal interpretation of the law, libel is still a criminal offense in the Philippines.

A suit for libel can thus get one arrested, and a conviction means fines as well as jail terms. Although Beltran was not arrested, many journalists feared the jail terms more than the fines. The fines, however, have also tended to be excessive, depending on the claims for damages by the supposedly aggrieved. One columnist convicted of supposedly libeling a former senator, but who has appealed the conviction, was for example ordered to pay P10 million in fines. And who can forget the P101 million libel suit filed by former President Estrada and his Executive Secretary against the Manila Times in 1999?

Obviously, however, the prospect of being arrested — the inconvenience and terrors of which, in this country, are multiplied by making sure it happens on a weekend so the accused cannot post bail — and of being jailed in the country’s hellish prisons is the stuff of which nightmares are made.

Not that libel suits are not nightmarish enough even without being arrested and serving jail time. A libel suit could be filed, once upon a time in this country, anywhere a publication is circulated, which meant that a journalist as well as his editors and publisher could have a fine time traveling the entire length and breadth of the country attending hearings.

A fine can also be so excessive as to impoverish anyone, or even shut down a publication, just as in the early 1900s a conviction for libel over the editorial “Aves de Rapina” (Birds of Prey — an editorial then Secretary of the Interior Dean Worcester assumed referred to his honored self) shut down the nationalist publication El Renacimiento (The Rebirth), which among other penalties was fined the then princely sum of P60,000.

Decriminalizing libel, however, would remove much of its capacity to intimidate and harass, sparing journalists as well as the country the spectacle, in this rumored democracy, of journalists being roused from their sleep, arrested, and taken to the nearest police station to be fingerprinted.

No journalist has so far been thrown in jail for a libel conviction, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. When it does, think of how our having an editor in prison will look to the world — and how rapidly the country’s already low standing in press freedom circles will sink further (Reporters Sans Frontieres ranks the country 86th in press freedom compliance worldwide).

As sane as the suggestion to decriminalize libel is — and as late as the country has been in doing so, the United States (whose jurisprudence the Philippines otherwise echoes) having decriminalized libel in 1963, or all of 40 years ago — the suggestion to amend the law accordingly was never entertained by Congress, perhaps because some of its denizens don’t want to lose a convenient weapon of intimidation against critics.

Libel laws are meant to protect the subjects of reporting and comment from media abuse. Being sued for libel is a risk every journalist accepts as part of the territory, and libel an offense for which there are penalties. But it has also been a convenient way for those in power to silence opposition, and in the Philippine experience also an effective means of harassment.

There is no evidence that the libel suit filed by the Villaraza and Angangco law firm in behalf of its senior partner Arthur Villaraza against Manila Tribune editor-publisher Ninez Cacho Olivarez was politically-motivated. There is no evidence either that it isn’t. News of it last August 4, however, did draw comments from pro-administration and pro-opposition observers alike that its timing was far from perfect.

The Makati mutiny had after all occurred only a little more than a week before, and President Arroyo’s state of rebellion proclamation was being debated. Olivares’ Tribune was in the thick of implicit support for the grievances if not the actions of the Makati mutineers, and was one of two newspapers that opposed the state of rebellion proclamation for supposedly being a cover for the suppression of the opposition.

The timing of the Olivarez arrest is thus open to hostile interpretation. Villaraza’s is President Arroyo’s law firm of choice. It is also a firm that tends to speak as if it were Ignacio Bunye and not just one more clutch of pricey lawyers. It should not escape public attention that while this firm has no authority to do so, it assured the public last week that “Apprehensions of a (government) clamp down on media have absolutely no basis and (the) timing (of the Olivarez arrest) was not meant to silence critics of the administration,” thus usurping the functions of the Presidential spokesman and at the same time appearing like the lady that protesteth too much.

There is no denying that libel, because it is a criminal offense in this country and because of the often excessive fines courts have imposed, has not only been used to harass journalists in the past. It will also continue to be among the weapons of choice of any government to intimidate journalists in the future unless the libel law is amended and libel decriminalized. It wouldn’t hurt press freedom either to include, in any amendment to the law, a reasonable ceiling on fines.

The need to reform the libel law should have nothing to do with the vices or virtues of the journalists involved, just as, in 1989, alarm over the Beltran libel suit had nothing to do with that columnist’s failings. Journalists do commit offenses against the facts, against fairness, justice and even good taste, but that doesn’t mean they deserve suppression, or that their suppression will not affect the entire press community.

It is for the sake of the rest of the community that the most distasteful among journalists in terms of either ethics, skills, or just plain bad practice deserve the same protection as the best. And those who dare say the otherwise unutterable deserve the most protection — not so much for their sake, as for everyone else’s.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, August 12, 2003)

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