It is not surprising that Philippine President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III wholeheartedly supports criminal libel in the Philippines. Luis Teodoro, BusinessWorld columnist and former dean of the College of Mass Communications of the University of the Philippines, wrote in a 2003 article about how the spectre of harassment-by-libel emerged in the Philippine scene so soon after the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos. Back in 1989, then Philippine President Cory Aquino sued the late Luis Beltran who, in his Philippine Star column “playfully (and inaccurately) described Mrs. Aquino as the first commander-in-chief in the country’s history to hide under a bed” during a coup d’etat being mounted at the time by renegade soldier Gringo Honasan.
Despite subsequent apologies from Beltran and the Star, Aquino pusued the suit and won it — remarkable, considering that, in Teodoro’s opinion, Beltran was likely more guilty of sexism than libel and that Philippine courts, in general, tend to “favor a liberal interpretation of the law.” An account of the circus published on the Los Angeles Times in 1987 pretty much summarised the technical pillars of the suit…
Offering evidence, the miffed Aquino invited several members of the Malacanang Palace press corps into the presidential bedroom. Dramatically, she walked to the bed, raised the edge of the coverlet and revealed a carpet-to-mattress wooden base.
“It was impossible for me to hide under my bed,” she insisted. “I think he wants to make fun of me. . . . He won’t get away with it.”
A precedent had been set and the nightmarish scenario of a whole industry gripped by the fear of being sued for libel was painted as Teodoro further relates…
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Coming so soon after the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship, and during the term of someone who had vowed to be Marcos’ exact opposite, the fear was that both the suit itself as well the Beltran conviction would intimidate the media and establish a precedent in which Presidents — armed with such undeniable advantages as their power to appoint judges — would henceforth go after journalists whose work they didn’t like, or whom they just didn’t like, period.
One of the results of this fear was a spate of workshops and seminars on libel law in which media groups sought to broaden journalists’ understanding of libel as well as find solutions to what was then perceived as the libel law’s potential for the harassment of dissenting journalists. One of the recommendations of the libel lawyers in a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility at the Development Academy of the Philippines was for the decriminalization of libel, which under Philippine law carries both a fine as well as a jail term in case of conviction.
Indeed, many of the world’s more progessive countries have decriminalised libel. The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) had declared that laws criminalising libel are “incompatible” with “freedom of expression” as articulated within the tenets of the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights (ICCPR). The United States, for its part, enshrines freedom of expression in the First Amendment which prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. There are no criminal libel elements in US federal law.
US courts also tend to regard as paramount the “importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern” and, as such, are sympathetic to private individuals who parody public figures and publish content critical of them and their personal lives. This is an aspect most relevant to Filipinos today as debate surrounding on the recent Philippine Supreme Court upholding of Republic Act 10175 or the “Philippine Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012” which supposedly extends the Philippines’ current criminal libel laws to include digital media channels where much of this content propagates rapidly to the chagrin of many Filipino public officials.
Teodoro, in the same 2003 article, points out that the threat of being sued for libel alone is already enough to put off journalists and content publishers…
Libel laws are meant to protect the subjects of reporting and comment from media abuse. Being sued for libel is a risk every journalist accepts as part of the territory, and libel an offense for which there are penalties. But it has also been a convenient way for those in power to silence opposition, and in the Philippine experience also an effective means of harassment.
This is obviously not an ideal legal framework in a country where the abuse of political power is well-enshrined in many government institutions and their agencies — including those law enforcement and regulatory agencies to whom the duty to protect the interests of the general public have been entrusted. As confidence in the integrity of government institutions flagged over theyears, mass media has been increasingly considered to be the more sensible channel through which ordinary citizens could elevate their grievances. Nowadays, even politicians and affluent Filipinos look to the media, and not the police, as their protectors.
The situation today is especially critical as old-timers increasingly lament the sad state of Philippine society under the Second Aquino Administration as one where wala nang masumbungan (one where “there is no authority to turn to for resolution of problems”). Just about every government branch and institution is seemingly infested with crooks. And with many big media organisations under the influence of powerful politicians and oligarchs, Filipinos increasingly rely more on the Darwinian dynamics of “citizen journalism” to tease out the truth. Unfortunately, this is a community made up of small organisations and private individuals who lack the resources to battle a libel lawsuit.
The Philippines is in a big wet mess, specially now after a monumentally inept effort was put into crafting its anti-cybercrime capability resulted in what is essentially a crap law. I defer from hereon to our commentor Johnny Saint who pretty much nailed it in a recent comment…
RA 10175 was poorly thought out and sloppily written. And now it is proven to be, as per ruling of the Supreme Court, a legally defective law. With the decision that major parts of the law are unconstitutional, it falls to the Executive to ‘tweak’ the law — likely through the implementing rules and regulations. But the IRR cannot sufficiently and validly cure those substantial defects. The IRR cannot amend the law itself.
On the other hand, amending RA 10175 through the regular legislative process will be very messy, requiring many of the sections to be rewritten. With such massive rewriting, the law might as well be repealed and a better crafted substitute measure passed.
Formulating a substitute, however, requires considerable time and resources. Besides, the repeal and enactment of a new law would hurt the pride of the lawmakers who passed it and the President who signed it into law. On the whole, this is probably the best choice, painful though it may be.
From the beginning the Penoy and the sponsors of RA 10175 bungled the affair by their clumsy insertion of sections violating or tending to violate freedom of expression, due process, and equal protection and privacy of communication. As a result, even the more laudable objective of giving law enforcement agencies the proper tools against child pornography, cracking, identity theft and criminal spam was compromised. Now, all these well-meaning measures will be flushed down the drain.
[NB: Parts of this article were lifted from the Wikipedia.org article “First Amendment to the United States Constitution” in a manner compliant to the terms stipulated in the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License that governs usage of content made available in this site.]
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.