Despite UN declarationPacquiao sues journalist for libel

There’s a surge in the number of libel suits depite the UN declaration

By Bryant L. Macale and Fernando R. Cabigao Jr., PJR Reports March-April 2012

STILL A criminal offense in the Philippines despite the October 2011 UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) declaration that it is incompatible with human rights law, libel suits are still being filed against journalists, in many cases to limit criticism of public officials and other powerful individuals. Despite a limit in the law itself to the amount of fines that could be imposed on those convicted of libel, prominent libel complainants often demand exorbitant amounts in damages.

Probably the most obvious example of the libel law being used to silence journalists was that of former presidential spouse Jose Miguel Arroyo, who filed, over 36 months, an unprecedented number of 11 libel charges against 46 journalists and sought more than P140 million in damages. (Arroyo dropped the libel charges on May 3, 2007, although a Dec. 2006 class action suit by journalists against Arroyo for allegedly abusing his right to sue is still ongoing.)

Although a number of high-profile politicians and public figures had been filing similar suits before Arroyo, there has since been a surge in the number of libel charges filed against journalists.

Among the latest public officials and public figures to sue a journalist for libel is boxing champion Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, who is also the current Congressman from Sarangani province, a recipient of the Philippine Legion of Honor, and a TV host, actor, and singer.

Pacquiao filed last March 5 a P75-million (approximately USD 1.7 million) three-count libel suit against General Santos City-based journalist Edwin Espejo for online articles he claims portrayed him as a coddler of an alleged dealer in stolen cars. In a suit filed before the City Prosecutor’s Office, Pacquiao is asking Espejo to pay P50 million (US$ 1.16-million) in moral damages, P20 million (US$ 465,744) in exemplary damages, and P5 million (US$ 116,436) in attorney’s fees.

The libel lawsuit stemmed from Espejo’s articles in the Asian Correspondent in which he alleged that Mohammad “Bong” Aquia, former head of the Presidential Anti-Smuggling Group in Central Mindanao and an alleged dealer in stolen cars, had sought refuge in Pacquiao’s house to elude police surveillance. Eurasia Review reposted his report.

In another report in MindaNews, Espejo cited a Journal report alleging that local police had failed to arrest Aquia after he boarded Pacquiao’s car and that Aquia stayed at Pacquiao’s house in General Santos City and in Sarangani Province (while he was under police surveillance)

In his complaint, Pacquiao said: “Espejo has intentionally and maliciously dragged my name to cause dishonor and discredit to my reputation and public image.” Aquia filed his own libel complaint against Espejo seeking P18 million (US$ 419,170) in moral and exemplary damages and attorney’s fees. Espejo submitted last April 2 his counter-affidavit to refute the suit.

Espejo told PJR Reports (PJRR) that a source, corroborating the Journal report, had personally seen Aquia in Pacquiao’s residence. He also said he indicated in his report that he had tried to get Pacquiao’s side through lawyer Francisco Gacal, brother of lawyer Franklin Gacal Jr., chief of staff of Pacquiao.

“It was never my intention to malign or besmirch anybody’s name and reputation,” Espejo told PJRR. Pacquiao singled out the journalist in his libel complaint. He did not file any libel lawsuit against Asian Correspondent and MindaNews.

In a phone interview with PJRR, Orlando Salatandre, lawyer of Pacquiao, said that the reputation of his client has been tarnished. “The author should be reminded of his duties and responsibilities. While journalists are a good vehicle for information, they should take extra care in invading the privacy of others,” he said.

Salatandare added that Espejo should have provided a fair forum between the two parties. The lawyer said that he had not yet discussed with his client the possibility of a settlement but said that “a settlement will be appreciated.”

Espejo’s counter-affidavit

Espejo told PJRR that as of press time, he had not received any summons related to Pacquiao’s libel complaint. In his counter-affidavit however, he raised four points against Aquia’s libel charges.

His lawyer Romel Bagares, executive director of Center for International Law, said there is no statute yet governing libel on the Internet. “It is a basic principle of criminal law that there is no crime where there is no law,” Bagares was quoted as saying.

The articles being complained of in both Pacquiao and Aquia’s complaints were posted online.
Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) defines libel as “a public imputation of a crime, a vice, or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonour, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”

When the libel law was passed, according to Espejo’s counter-affidavit, it did not “comprehend the rise of the interface of advanced telecommunications technologies with the (I)nternet.” Espejo said a bill penalizing Internet libel is still pending in Congress.

Espejo’s allegedly libelous remarks, Bagares added, are not “malicious in fact because they fall under the exception of a qualified privileged communication because the remarks merely restate or report the pronouncements of the Highway Patrol Group about complainant’s alleged involvement in a car syndicate.”

Espejo is chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) General Santos City Chapter. In a March 7 statement, NUJP said Espejo had cited the sources of his report so it “clearly shows that Espejo did not write the articles with malice aforethought, which is a requisite for libel.”

Espejo also claimed that Aquia is a public figure “subject to fair comment or reportage and susceptible to the public figure-exception rule or the privileged communication rule in jurisprudence.”

Espejo added that Aquia used to head a presidential anti-smuggling body and has links with Pacquiao, himself both a public official and a public figure.

Libel still a criminal offense

The UNHRC declared in 2011 that the Philippine libel law is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Article 355 of the RPC states that: “Libel by means of writing or other similar means” is punishable with a minimum of six months and one day imprisonment (prision correccional) and a fine ranging from P200 to P6,000.”

The UNHRC declaration said the provisions on libel of the 82-year-old RPC were “excessive” and urged the Philippine government to decriminalize the libel law, as the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and other journalists’ groups including the NUJP have been demanding for nearly two decades.

The UNHRC acted on the April/July 2008 complaint filed by Davao-based broadcaster Alexander “Lex” Adonis, of which both the CMFR and NUJP were co-signatories.
Adonis spent almost two years in jail after being convicted in absentia on a libel complaint filed by then Davao City 1st District Representative and House Speaker Prospero Nograles. Adonis was sentenced to a prison term of from two years to four years and six months. He was released on parole in 2008.

The Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) called the UNHRC declaration “a triumph for free expression and press freedom”. In a Jan. 2012 statement, the media coalition also called on the Philippine government “to take the steps necessary to decriminalize libel and prevent similar occurrences, to cause the immediate dismissal of all pending cases of criminal libel, as well as to compensate Adonis and every other journalist who has been imprisoned under the provisions of the Philippine libel law.”

“To hurry the process along, the FFFJ calls on all journalists’ and media advocacy groups as well as civil society organizations to campaign for the immediate adoption of the UNCHR recommendations, including the dropping of all pending criminal libel charges against journalists,” the FFFJ added. (“A triumph for free expression and press freedom”)

Founded in 2003 to stop the killing of journalists and to support journalists under threat, FFFJ is a coalition of journalist and media advocacy groups CMFR, Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD), Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines, KBP), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and the Philippine Press Institute (PPI). CMFR is the FFFJ secretariat.

“The law against libel has primarily been used to suppress free expression rather than to address media abuse,” CMFR deputy director and PJRR editor Luis V. Teodoro wrote in CMFR’s In Medias Res blog.

“A libel law can be a legitimate means of redress for people the media have aggrieved, and can even encourage greater media responsibility. But the antecedents of the present libel law, in both the Spanish and US colonial periods, was primarily used to prevent criticism of both colonial regimes and to curb Filipino demands for independence. The present libel law has inevitably been used to intimidate and silence journalists.” (“Decriminalizing libel towards true self-regulation”, Feb. 27)