By Eimor Santos and Reynard Magtoto, VERA Files
As long as libel is a criminal offense, there remains a direct attack to freedom of expression, media practitioners declared as they marked Press Freedom Day.
"I used to think that criminal libel is a necessary evil. It is the only weapon against frequent abuses of media. Unfortunately, this weapon has been variously abused by people in power," Amado P. Macasaet, Philippine Press Institute (PPI) chairman-president and Malaya publisher, said in a forum at De La Salle University-Manila last week.
Macasaet said he could never forget the 10 libel cases filed by former First Gentleman Mike Arroyo against him and 46 other journalists. "It was the worst example of how powerful people can threaten journalists with prison terms and fines we may not be able to pay in the event of final conviction," he said.
Tina Malone, US embassy information officer, noted that when journalists around the world are threatened and jailed, they are being censored as well.
"The truth is replaced by fear, and all of us suffer," she said.
What is problematic about the Philippine libel law is the premise that truth is not a complete defense. "Even if you are stating the truth, if they can prove that there is malice, you can still spend time in jail, which is ridiculous," lawyer Harry Roque of the Center for International Law and the director of the Institute of International Legal Studies and Law Center of the University of the Philippines College of Law, said.
Roque cited the case of Alexis Adonis, a Davao-based broadcaster who was convicted of libel in 2007. This was for reading over his radio program an article from the tabloid Abante claiming that former Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles (whose name was not mentioned by Adonis) was caught with his pants down while running away from the husband of a woman he was alleged to be with in a hotel room.
Adonis spent more than two years in prison.
"He had to spend time with criminals whom he exposed in his radio program," Roque said. "And you could imagine how happy these characters were."
The UNHRC asked the Philippine government to compensate Adonis for the time served in prison, and to take steps to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future, like reviewing the law on libel.
Earlier this year the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) declared that the libel law in the Philippines is discordant with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or freedom of expression.
Rowena C. Paraan, secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), said the public must take practical actions in order to decriminalize libel.
She suggested a 10-step action plan, which includes educating media practitioners on libel and ethics, intensifying national and international campaigns, and using the social media for campaigning, among others.
According to Paraan, it is crucial to inform the public that freedom of expression is not for media practitioners alone, but for everyone.
Bloggers like JR Bustamante and Jane Uymatiao advocated the use of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to push for the decriminalization of libel. They said simple hash tags can do a lot to pressure the politicians.
Almost all states in the United States have decriminalized libel. Unlike the Philippines, other countries treat libel only as a civil offense that is punishable by fine.
The Philippine libel law, which is embodied in Article 353-364 of the Revised Penal Code, classifies libel as a "crime against honor." The punishment for libel is a minimum imprisonment of six months and one day and a fine ranging from P200 pesos to P6, 000.
The Philippine government said libel can be decriminalized but it has to be included in the entire Revised Penal Code revision project which, Roque said, will surely "take forever." Thus, journalists urged Congress to file a one-sentence law repealing the current libel law.
As observed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), threats against journalists are on the rise. As of December 2011, the Community to Protect Journalists reported that 179 journalists have been put behind bars around the world.
The Manila forum was held in partnership with the United States Embassy. Simultaneous forums were held in Cebu, Baguio, Bulacan and Cagayan de Oro to mark World Press Freedom Day.
(Eimor Santos and Reynard Magtoto are journalism students of the University of the Philippines and Bicol University, respectively, who are writing for VERA Files as part of their internship. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")