A Slew of Libel Suits

First Gentleman Mike Arroyo takes 43 journalists to court
A Slew of Libel Suits
By Nathan Lee and Jose Bimbo F. Santos

FIRST GENTLEMAN Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo is trying to say something and it’s not “Hello.”

In recent months, 10 libel suits against 43 journalists were filed by the presidential spouse, sending a strong message to media—including the international press—that something terribly wrong is going on.

“These figures are outrageous,” Christopher Warren, president of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), said.

“It is deeply concerning that the husband of the president, a man of considerable influence and power, can try and hinder free speech by suing journalists into submission,” Warren added.

Scared but furious
Local journalists have thought as much.

“A large sector of media is somehow scared but more often furious when they are charged with libel by powerful people like the First Gentleman,” Amado Macasaet, Malaya publisher, wrote in his Aug. 30 column.

To be sure, the use of libel suits as a tool to assert one’s authority upon media is not new to the Philippine experience.

In 1999, then President Joseph Estrada filed a P101-million libel suit against The Manila Times which eventually led to the closure of the daily. The libel suit was triggered by the Times story about a government contract awarded to the Argentine firm Industrias Metallurgicas Pescarmona Sociedad Anopmina (Impsa), in which Estrada was referred to as an “unwitting ninong.” (Editor’s note: PJR Reports editor Chit Estella and copy editor Booma Cruz were managing editor and opinion editor, respectively, of the Times then.)

Such an episode is ironically being remembered at the time of Estrada’s successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose legitimacy as president has been publicly questioned following the last presidential election.

“With [43] journalists sued for libel in the same season by no less than the president’s conjugal partner in power, and given the president’s own disregard for public accountability, as evidenced by her constant stonewalling and contemptuous treatment of the critical media, Mike Arroyo’s suits can only be intended to harass and intimidate, to send a chilling sensation across the profession,” Vergel Santos, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility’s (CMFR) board chair, told PJR Reports.

Public figure
In filing numerous libel suits, Arroyo and his lawyers have claimed that the First Gentleman was a private individual and thus “not fair game” for media scrutiny.

But this was swiftly disputed by human rights lawyer Theodore Te of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG). In a discussion sponsored by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) on Sept. 21 at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, Te cited the 1999 Borjal vs. Court of Appeals case. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that even a private individual can assume the status of a public figure when he is involved in an undertaking infused with public interest.

Te also noted the existence of the “Office of the First Gentleman.” A check made by PJR Reports showed that the official Malacañang website carries a link pointing readers to Mike Arroyo and his activities.

“The Office of the First Gentleman is a partner of the Administration of her Excellency, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in undertaking development initiatives for the improvement of the lives of Filipinos, especially the poor and the marginalized,” is one of the declarations of the First Gentleman’s official website, www.ops.gov.ph/jma.

Law professor Harry Roque Jr., director of the Institute of International Legal Studies in UP, observed that the libel cases filed by Arroyo appear to have a common template, implying a systematic effort to stifle the media.

With the barrage of libel suits, Arroyo may be abusing his right to sue and, in the process, violating press freedom, Roque added, during a recent meeting with the libel respondents.

This opinion is shared by Te who said, “Suing media for libel has a chilling effect, making journalists think twice before saying or writing anything.”

And while the public deserves to be protected from media abuse, the libel law can likewise be used to intimidate journalists. Luis Teodoro, a veteran journalist and a journalism ethics professor, said in his Sept. 5 column in the Business- Mirror that the libel law “is, in fact, a weapon frequently used to stifle criticism or unfavorable reporting in repressive regimes.”

‘Good legal advice’
One of the main respondents in the libel cases filed by Arroyo was Ramon Tulfo, erstwhile friend of the presidential spouse. Charged with Tulfo were two publishers and 13 editors of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and its sister publication Bandera.

In his complaint filed on Sept. 6, Arroyo said Tulfo maliciously linked him to the alleged smuggling activities of businessmen Sammy Lim, and Vicky and Thomas Toh. Vicky was said to be a mistress of Arroyo.

While including the Inquirer and Bandera editors in his suit against Tulfo, Arroyo spared their counterparts in other publications.

Lito Banayo, former columnist for The Daily Tribune, for example, was named in the libel suit but not the paper’s publisher and editors.

Te believes that in doing so, Arroyo must be getting “good legal advice” from his lawyers who apparently are trying to avoid having the case thrown out on grounds of “reasonable doubt.” This usually happens in cases where there are multiple defendants.

Banayo, who is now with Malaya and also serves as spokesman for opposition Sen. Panfilo Lacson, was sued for P11 million for referring to Arroyo as “el esposo gordo” (the fat spouse). The First Gentleman complained that the description was “obviously meant to denigrate me for my rotundity.”

Last August, Malaya publisher Amado Macasaet, along with his editors and reporters, attended a pre-trial conference for a libel case filed against the paper. Two suits had been filed against Malaya by the First Gentleman. Ellen Tordesillas, Malaya’s chief of reporters, said the case had shown her how such suits could be “really expensive” in terms of time, money and effort.

“I had to go to court even if I had just finished chemotherapy,” she said, as quoted by a Malaya story last August 24. Tordesillas at that time was being treated for cancer.

The experience taught her that “lawsuits are one way to pressure the media into silence by intimidation.”

Decriminalizing libel
With the deluge of libel cases filed against journalists, talks were spurred anew regarding the decriminalization of libel.

Back in 1993, CMFR organized a discussion on libel in Tagaytay. The discussion, attended by media scholars and practitioners, came in the wake of a libel suit filed against Luis Beltran by then President Corazon Aquino. Beltran had written in his Philippine Star column that Aquino hid under her bed during the 1989 coup attempt.

At that time, then senator Francisco Tatad had also drafted a bill removing prison penalties in criminal libel cases.

In that discussion, the participants proposed the removal of libel from the Penal Code, thereby distinguishing it from ordinary crimes and felonies. This, however, would not remove liability for civil damages.

Journalists themselves do not wish to see accountability removed from journalism. As stated recently by NUJP chair Jose Torres, “Hindi naman sa wala dapat batas, pero ‘di dapat gamitin pang-harass o pang-intimidate.”

Teodoro said that once it is decriminalized, libel would cease to function as an oppressive weapon of the powers-that-be.

But the chances of such a bill being passed by Congress are slim.

“Depende sa mood ng mga congressman, but it will be quite hard because they are often times the ones suing people for libel,” Te said.

Remember history
Teodoro said, “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 titled “Aves de Rapina” (Birds of Prey).”

A discussion of libel cases in the country would almost always point to the “Aves de Rapina” experience, a landmark libel case in the country. During the American occupation, El Renacimiento printed an editorial criticizing an American official for questionable dealings such as “the sale to the city of worthless lands at fabulous prices,” sponsoring “concession for hotels on filled-in lands with the prospect of enormous profits at the expense of people,” among other things.

The opinion piece likened the unnamed official to a vulture. Feeling alluded to by the article, then Secretary of the Interior Dean C. Worcester filed a libel suit against the paper.

The paper lost the case. It paid a fine of P60,000 (an enormous amount at that time) and, more tragically, was forced to close down.

These days, not many journalists remember that case anymore.  But they may well have to—if they are to prevent its repeat in any shape, manner or form.

List of Journalists Charged with Libel by Mike Arroyo

Newsbreak (“More Properties,” Dec. 8, 2003)
1.     Marites Vitug (editor in chief)
2.     Glenda Gloria (associate editor)
3.     Ricky Carandang (business editor)
4.     R. E. Otico (editorial consultant)
5.     Jose Dalisay Jr. (editorial consultant)
6.     Booma Cruz (contributing editor)
Newsbreak (“Will she now change?” June 7, 2004)
7.     Concepcion Paez (contributing writer)
Malaya (“Poe’s Camp says Mike is Chief Cheating Operator”,
May 19, 2004)
8.     JP Lopez (reporter)
9.     Regina Bengco (reporter)
10.     Amado Macasaet (publisher)
11. Enrique Romualdez (executive editor)
12. Joy de los Reyes (editor in chief)
13. Ma. Teresa Molina (managing editor)
14. Minnie Advincula (news editor)
15. Ellen Tordesillas (chief of reporters)
Malaya (“First Couple’s idea of charity,” July 9, 2004, “Business Insight” column by Macasaet)
16.     Rosario Galang (business editor)
Amado Macasaet (publisher)
The Daily Tribune (six counts, “So I See” column: July 21, 25, 28,
Aug. 11, 13, 15, 2003)
17.     Lito Banayo
Philippine Daily Inquirer (14 counts, Tulfo’s column “On Target” that appeared on Jan. 14, 17, and  26; March 9 and 23; May 23, June 17, and   Aug. 3, 2006)
18. Ramon Tulfo (columnist)
19. Isagani Yambot (publisher)
20. Letty Jimenez Magsanoc (editor in chief)
21. Jose Ma. Nolasco (managing editor)
22. Abelardo Ulanday (associate editor)
23. Rosario Garcellano (associate editor)
24. Artemio Engracia Jr. (news editor)
25. Jorge Aruta (opinion editor)
26. Pergentino Bandayrel Jr. (national news editor)
27. Juan Sarmiento Jr. (senior desk editor)
Bandera (six counts, Tulfo’s column “On Target” that appeared on Jan. 26, May 23 and 27, June 6, 8, and 17)
28. Eileen Mangubat (publisher)
29. Beting Laygo Dolor (editor in chief)
30. Jimmy Alcantara (associate editor)
31. Raymond Rivera (circulation manager)
Tribune (stories where Tatad was quoted as saying Arroyo was his wife’s “chief cheater,” May 14, 16, 17, and 18, 2004)
32. Niñez Cacho Olivares (editor in chief)
33. Romulo Mariñas (news editor)
34. Gina Capili Inciong (city editor)
35. Jake Martin (deskman)
36. Marvin Estigoy (advertising sales manager)
37. Gerry Baldo (reporter)
38. Sherwin Olaes (reporter)
39. Lito Tugadi (circulation manager)
40. Jing Santos (subscription manager)
(For accusing Mike Arroyo of influencing RPN-9 network to axe “Isumbong Mo ,  Tulfo Brothers” during a press conference in Quezon City  on Aug. 2)
41. Erwin Tulfo
42. Raffy Tulfo
Ramon Tulfo
43. William Esposo

Comments are closed.