It is best used to protect the public from media abuse. But the libel law can also harass, intimidate and silence journalists. It is in fact a weapon frequently used to stifle criticism or unfavorable reporting in repressive regimes, which in most cases have equivalent “insult” laws. In some African countries, for example, criticizing the head of state is an insult that can mean imprisonment.
These insult laws are modern day attempts to punish lese majeste, or the idea that criticizing or otherwise implying that the reigning king, queen or emperor is less than perfect. Whatever remains of Philippine democracy has not yet degenerated that far. No government official no matter how exalted his or her post has ever declared that criticism detracts from his or her majesty. But mostly unnoticed except by foreign observers, it could be already treading that path.
Libel suits are premised on publication. The equivalent offense, slander, is premised on oral dissemination. Apparently Mr. Arroyo also intends to go after those who either printed or broadcast opposition statements that he says defamed him.
Mr. Arroyo hasn’t been the only one to use the libel law against his and his wife’s critics, however. Former president Joseph Estrada once filed a P100 million libel suit against a Manila broadsheet, and has recently filed a P30 million suit against another Manila newspaper. Politician Francis Nepomuceno has also sued another reporter for P19 million.
The International Federation of Journalists has thus expressed concern over the increasing number of libel suits that have been filed and are likely to be filed against journalists. An organization representing over half a million journalists worldwide, IFJ did say it was “heartened” by the passage of a bill in the House of Representatives (HB 77) which would compel libel complainants to file complaints only at the regional trial court of the province or city where a publication or broadcast station holds office. Right now a libel complainant can file the complaint anywhere he has an office. This has led to journalists’ having to travel to places far from their places of work.
But IFJ was particularly concerned over a recent ruling by the Court of Appeals which affirmed the conviction of a tabloid columnist and TV broadcaster. A lower court had imposed a prison term of 32 years and a fine of P14 million on the journalist. “This sentence,” said IFJ, “is not just unreasonable, it is totally excessive and makes a mockery of the legal system in the Philippines.”
Two characteristics have made libel a convenient means of harassing and silencing critics, specially journalists, in the Philippines. The first is its being a criminal offense. The second is the practical absence of any ceiling on the damages that can be claimed against alleged offenders.
Philippine libel law makes it a crime to impute any crime, vice or defect, “or any act, omission, condition , status or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”
The law does seem focused on protecting the rights of those unjustly maligned by the media. But the original law was passed during the US colonial period, when it was used to silence, among others, the newspaper El Renacimiento (The Rebirth), for publishing an editorial called “Aves de Rapina” (Birds of Prey). Among other penalties, the newspaper was fined the then princely sum of P60,000.
Libel’s being a criminal offense in the Philippines has made it a potent weapon to harass journalists because they can be arrested and jailed. Although they can post bail, arrest warrants have often been served on Friday evenings, which assures that the journalist will spend the next two days in jail. On the other hand, the damages that have been demanded and even granted could be crippling even to big media organizations.
Immediately after EDSA 1, these characteristics of the libel law did not seem to matter much, primarily because of the liberal political atmosphere which, among other consequences, led the courts to dismiss libel suits in favor of protecting free expression.
No one will argue that this is no longer the case. Taking their cue from the statements, policies and acts of the national government, the courts now seem to share the regime belief that press freedom has to be curtailed, and that “abusive” journalists must be punished with stiff fines and prison sentences.
The change in the political atmosphere from one of permissiveness to repression may be credited for this change in the way the libel laws are now being implemented. Expect the courts to issue decisions similar to that which recently imposed 32 years’ imprisonment and a P14 million fine on a journalist for an offense allegedly committed ten years ago.
The increasing use of libel suits against the media is in this sense one more Arroyo regime achievement, together with the curtailment of the freedom of assembly, and the transformation through state terrorism of vast areas of the Philippine countryside into a howling wilderness.