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Criminal Libel and Police Used to Muzzle Filipino Media

Powerful Interests Use Criminal Libel and Police to Muzzle Filipino Media

The International Federation of Journalism is concerned about a spate of assaults on press freedom by political and business figures in the Philippines in recent weeks. IFJ affiliate, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, has reported a series of incidents including the conviction of a columnist in a libel case filed by a politician, libel suits against journalists uncovering a businesswoman’s alleged involvement in a multi-billion peso corruption scandal and journalists being barred by police from covering the elections of a regional political group.

Libel remains a criminal offence under Filipino law despite the UN Human Rights Council's view that it violates freedom of expression. The 80-year old Revised Penal Code can impose prison sentences for libel.

Last week the Cebu Regional Trial Court found Leo Lastimosa, columnist for The Freeman and radio-television broadcaster for sister stations dyAB and ABS CBN-Cebu, guilty of libel over a 2007 about former Provincial Governor and now Representative Gwendolyn Garcia. Lastimosa was ordered to pay Garcia damages amounting to P2,000,000.00, (USD 44,000) and a fine of P6000 (USD 135). Lastimosa faces imprisonment if he cannot pay. Lastimosa says the comments in the article in question did not relate to Garcia.

Last month lawyers for businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles filed four libel complaints against five journalists, a newspaper publisher, a blogger, a legal consultant and a fashion designer. The charges were filed against Philippine Daily Inquirer reporter Gil Cabacungan, managing editor Jose Maria Nolasco, editor-in-chief Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, and publisher Raul Pangalangan. Also charged were reporter Natasya Gutierrez; National Press Club legal consultant and blogger Berteni "Toto" Causing; and fashion designer Eduardo Baddeo.

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Napoles has in hiding since figuring in an alleged corruption in an alleged P10 billion-peso (USD 224 million) scandal. Between July 12 and 17, the Philippine Daily Inquirer released a six-part investigative report detailing the alleged misuse of P10 billion worth of Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) by a syndicate led by Napoles. also reported on the alleged lavish lifestyle of Napoles' daughter Jeane and on a property in her name in Los Angeles.

NUJP reports that police in Catanduanes, in the Bicol Region of Luzon, barred journalists from covering the elections of the local branch of the Philippine Councilors League (PCL). Ramil Soliveres, the NUJP’s Catanduanes chairperson, said reporters were prevented from entering the Provincial Capitol Dome, where the provincial PCL elections were being held, on orders from PCL chapter president Juan Velchez. Velchez is understood to have instructed Arnaldo Escober, the provincial director of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), to prohibit the media from covering the elections.

The IFJ is deeply concerned at the methods used by powerful interests to effectively bludgeon the Filipino media and prevent them from reporting legitimate news in the public interest. “There is a constant pattern in the Philippines where the wealthy and the powerful seek to misuse both the law and the authorities in attempts to prevent legitimate scrutiny of their activities.

“At the very least we have seen numerous examples where the wealthy and the powerful simply bar the media from reporting of what should be open and transparent activities such as elections. Alternatively, these powerful self-interests misuse the law to silence or punish the media for carrying out legitimate investigations into corruption and misbehaviour. At worst, powerful interests use intimidation, harassment, violence and murder to prevent a story getting out or to kill the journalists who are doing their duty by upholding the public’s right to know,” the IFJ said.

“The culture of impunity in the Philippines, that fails to protect the media, that fails to bring to justice the guilty, allows the unscrupulous to escape scrutiny and undermines democracy. The IFJ calls on the administration of President Aquino to remove libel from the criminal statutes; fully investigate the allegations of corruption; ensure the entire political process is open, transparent and subject to legitimate scrutiny; and bring to justice those responsible for the harassment and murder of our journalist colleagues.”


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