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What lies in libel

Words by Stef Gumata

Libel is a paradox. It exists in democracy where it should not, and it is used to cover truths when it should fight against false statements. “We’re at the precipice, if we fall over we’re no longer a democracy.”  These words were uttered by Maria Ressa, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Rappler CEO as libel law was effectively weaponized against her. 

While the Filipino people enjoy the privilege of speaking out their minds both verbally and through online means, not all opinions are excusable by their right to free speech. Ever since the implementation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, accounts on libel have been continuously used by those in power to silence their critics. Journalists, activists, and human rights defenders, in particular, have been shackled by the law to limit their scrutiny and remarks against the government. 

As of May 2022, fifty-six journalists have been sued for libel. With our journalists subjected to relentless judicial harassment, it is no wonder that the Philippines ranked as 147th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. This placement signifies that even though we are a democratic country with free speech in its constitution, our press cannot freely report events lest they risk their safety and reputation. Now that the media has reached a sorry state, the decriminalization of libel, a plea long fought for by several human rights defenders and journalists, should be realized in the shortest notice.

Defining libel

Although libel is a familiar term, its exact meaning is often lost among other synonymous words such as slander and defamation. The general area of law that protects people from statements that could harm their reputation, is called defamation law. While libel is a defamatory statement that’s written, slander is a defamatory statement spoken orally.

In Article 353 of the Act Number 3815, also known as Revised Penal Code (RPC), libel is defined as any public and malicious imputation of a crime, vice, or defect, may it be real or imaginary. Any act, omission, status, or circumstance that would dishonor, discredit or contempt of a person, or to blacken the memory of a deceased. Under Article 353 of the RPC, a person found guilty of libel could be imprisoned for six years, and pay a fine of up to 6,000 pesos.

Meanwhile, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 definition focused on cyber libel – stating it as libel “committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.” This type of libel penalizes one degree higher than ordinary libel.

To differentiate if there is ground for a suit, there is a legal distinction between defamatory statements and stating opinions. Insults and statements that cannot be proven true or otherwise, won’t constitute defamation. On the other hand, accusations that could harm one’s reputation, such as the now taken-down article from Philstar.com titled ‘Influential businessman eyed in ex-councilor’s slay,’ count as a defamatory statement according to the law.

The accused and the powerful

In 2020, Maria Ressa, and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted of cyber libel by Judge Reinalda Estacio-Montesa of Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46. The article that spelled out their fate was an article published four months before the Cybercrime Law was adopted. Businessman Wilfredo Keng filed the suit against the 2012-published article in October 2017, five years later since its publication. The DOJ ruled that since the article had an update in 2014 when the cybercrime law was implemented, the law would apply to it. However, the only difference it had was the correction of a missed typographical error, from “evation” to “evasion.” Even if it does count as republication, the time to file the libel case has long expired in 2015, as stated in the libel law in the RPC. This decision was cruel, deemed to be nonsensical since the essence of the article never changed, and the law was twisted once again in favor of the oppressor.

During the same year, alternative media outlet Northern Dispatch editor-in-chief Kimberlie Quitasol and reporter Khim Russel Abalos were charged of cyber libel. The accuser was Police Regional Officer Cordillera Director Brigadier General, R’Win Pagkalinawan who claimed that the reporters “spliced” his statements. Fortunately, Judge Ivan Kim Morales of the Baguio City Regional Trial Court Branch 59 dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. 

On the other hand, last August 2022, ex-vice presidential candidate Walden Bello was arrested due to a cyber libel case filed by Jefry Tupas, an aide of Vice President Sara Duterte and former Davao City Information Officer. The suit arose from a press conference where Bello accused Tupas of being involved with drugs during a beach party that was raided by authorities in 2021. 

Just recently on December 13, Baguio Chronicle editor and Rappler correspondent Frank Cimatu was convicted over cyber libel charges. Judge Evangeline Cabochan-Santos of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 93 stated that Cimatu is “guilty beyond reasonable doubt” in line with the charges filed by former Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol.

Duterte’s administration yielded at least 37 libel cases against journalists according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). Meanwhile, under the current Marcos Jr. administration, NUJP has already reported 8 cyber libel cases against journalists. Marcos’ reign hasn’t even lasted a year just yet, but at this rate, even more journalists would be sued for libel by the time his term ends, when compared to Duterte.

These cases may be independent of each other, but they all share the same formula. The accusers are those in high positions, and their targets are the vigilant and critical eyes that expose their violations. Time and again, it proves that libel law in the Philippines is a perfect excuse to weaponize their lie as truth in order to harass and muzzle the media. 

Decriminalizing libel

Under the presence of the cyber libel law, 3,809 cases have been recorded since 2012 up to November of 2022. Data from the Department of Justice Office of Cybercrime shows that 482 cases stemmed from Southern Tagalog, the third region with the most cases next to Central Visayas which had 483, and NCR that had 703.

Not only is libel law a threat to free speech, it is a violation of Section 4 Article III of the 1987 Constitution which states that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press.”

And the violations does not even end here.

Libel law also violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which the Philippines is a signatory. Disregarding these misalignments would mean losing the identity of our country, and surrendering our freedom of speech.

These problems have been addressed on repeat by various groups and individuals. Progressive media outlet, Altermidya stated that weaponization of libel “promotes impunity and censorship, breeding a scenario where people expressing opinions are adjudged criminal.”

NUJP even called for the help of UN Special Rapporteur on Free Expression, Irene Khan to look into the use of libel and cyber libel in repressing the media.

And in light of these events, a hopeful happenstance occurred.

“Our libel laws have been weaponized to stifle very basic fundamental rights. These laws have been used to constantly attack many of our freedoms, but particularly the freedom of the press. We need to decriminalize libel if we are to truly defend press freedom,” words uttered from  Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros as she filed a bill to decriminalize libel last December 13, 2022.

Senate Bill 1593 of the 19th Congress, known as Decriminalization of Libel Act repeals multiple articles from RPC and a section in Cybercrime Prevention Act, all of which are concerned with libel. Filed hours after Cimatu’s conviction, Hontiveros’ bill served as a protest against the decision of the court and all those in positions that abuse their power.

Libel is a paradox that only serves its creators. To report freely is a right, not a privilege. Even more concerning, is that everyone is entitled to the truth, not censored news that caters to fascists. Now that the Philippines is under the administration of a Marcos-Duterte tandem, the paradoxical nature of libel should be erased before it develops into a fully-realized weapon against freedom of speech. [P]

layout by Christian Lobrico

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