Ilonggo journalists fight hard to decriminalize libel

ABOVE THE BELT | ALEX P. VIDAL

NEW YORK CITY — In a democratic state like the Philippines, onion-skinned politicians and other known enemies of press freedom use the libel case to harass and intimidate practicing journalists.

They are aware that libel is a criminal offense, thus punishable by fine and imprisonment under the Philippine jurisprudence.

They aren’t actually after the fine.

Most of them want to see the journalists who have “offended” or “defamed” them go to jail.

That’s the bone of their contention; that’s what they want to happen.

Most of them think sending a journalist to jail via the libel case is already tantamount to “avenging” against the journalist’s critical newspaper articles and commentaries.

No normal human being, including a journalist, would want to go to jail.

However, we prefer being charged in court (which they refer to as “the proper forum”) than being murdered.

The Philippines, after all, is the most dangerous country in Asia for journalists, according to the media watchdogs.

It’s actually the biggest cemetery in the world for members of the Fourth Estate based on statistics on media killings.

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Going to jail for a libel case filed by a public official, so far, hasn’t caused any iota of fear and embarrassment to any journalist who is merely doing his job.

When we are arrested and manacled, it’s not because we committed a heinous crime or stole a neighbor’s wallet.

It’s because we made somebody, who has very poor understanding and appreciation of the nature of our profession, mad.

It’s because somebody doesn’t have the delicadeza misusing the public funds, using public office for advancement of his whims and caprices, and for engaging in transactions and activities inimical to public interest.  

After being charged for libel and spending a few hours or days in jail, a Filipino journalist, in many cases, becomes a celebrity and hailed as a hero of press freedom; he gets invitations left and right to speak about the hazards of his profession in universities and other gatherings.    

The politicians who filed the libel case become the objects of derision and public contempt.

If a public official’s attention is being called over a possible impropriety while in public office, he must submit to the critical news or commentary however bombastic may be the method used by the press, as long as it doesn’t breach the public official’s private life.

This hinges on the principle that a public office is a public trust.

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It’s because of the libel case’s imprisonment clause why we, the Ilonggos community journalists, as well as our colleagues in other parts of the Philippines, have been in the front-line campaigning since after the EDSA Revolution or during the time of President Corazon Aquino to decriminalize libel.

Our campaign in the period between 1989 until 1998 and most recently, included regularly pressing during chance “ambush” interviews and press conferences former senators Joey Lina, the late Leticia Ramos-Shahani, Nikki Coseteng, the late Raul Roco, among other national legislators to pass a bill in congress to make a drastic change for libel law in the Philippine penal code.   

No political figure has publicly said no and they all promised to initiate steps to decriminalize libel.

Until now, however, their promises have remained a promise.

Until our colleague, Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of the confrontational Rappler, was recently arrested by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in Manila for cyber libel case, another libel dog with a different collar.

We are confident Ms Ressa will be able to survive this latest attempt to gag and muzzle the press in the Philippines.

No matter how they try to camouflage the issue, it’s a clear case of harassment and intimidation.

We shall continue to advocate for the change of the libel law in the Philippines, and to vigorously fight for press freedom even under a despotic regime with low regard for freedom of the press and expression.