Decriminalize libel | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

Decriminalize libel

/ 08:22 PM February 06, 2012

Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada last week pushed for the passage of his measure that would decriminalize libel. He said that while it is the right of individuals to be protected from unethical and irresponsible journalism, imprisonment is not a just penalty in such cases. Civil damages, he said, may be a sufficient penalty and deterrent, considering the economic situation of journalists.

Normally, we would support the measure in its entirety. We believe it’s high time a law that has had a chilling effect on journalists was removed from the statute books.  But instead we should not entirely decriminalize libel but support a middle ground similar to the proposal made by retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Vicente Mendoza in 2008.

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Justice Mendoza’s compromise formula would balance the interests of freedom of the press and the right of an individual to seek redress by making a distinction between “political libel’’ and “private libel.’’ In the case of government officials and public figures, he suggested that the libel law be amended to place the burden of proving malice on the complainant. But with respect to private libel, he said, “the law should be preserved out of regard for the values of reputation and privacy.’’

We support particularly the decriminalization of libel with respect to political libel, or libel allegedly committed against public officials and public figures. Why decriminalize political libel?

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Because it would uphold the freedom of expression and the press enshrined in the Constitution and in international agreements, like the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to which the Philippines is a party.

Because it would enable journalists to perform their duty to report and criticize official action without fear of censorship or prosecution.

Because the libel law does not distinguish between speech exercised in pursuit of political ends and speech that is of public concern, as against speech of which the public has no concern.

Because the person or entity allegedly libeled has a legal remedy: they can file a civil action for damages. (In some cases, the damages awarded can bankrupt a media organization.)

Early this year, the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists hailed as a triumph for free expression and press freedom the declaration of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, adopted during the 103rd session of the United Nations, that the Philippines’ Revised Penal Code penalizing libel as a criminal offense is “incompatible with Article 19, Paragraph three of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which the Philippines is a signatory.’’

The move to decriminalize libel is growing. Ten countries now have no criminal defamation laws. Fourteen countries have initiated decriminalization of libel, including France, Croatia and Ivory Coast which impose fines only. In the United States, 33 states have no libel laws; only 17 have state laws against libel.

We have seen how the libel law was used by the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as a weapon to go after journalists who wrote critical stories about her and her administration. In 2006, her husband, Mike Arroyo, filed a string of libel cases against 43 journalists, only to drop them later after he recovered from a life-threatening operation.

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Speaker Prospero Nograles filed a libel case against Alex Adonis who had reported on his radio program in 2006 that Nograles had run out of his hotel room naked when the husband of the woman he allegedly spent the night with showed up. Adonis was convicted and sentenced to a prison term of four years.  He questioned the decision before the United Nations Human Rights Committee after he had served two years. The UNHRC has urged the Philippine government to compensate Adonis for time served in prison.

Last month the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said that it is now up to the government to take steps to decriminalize political libel, to cause the dismissal of pending cases of criminal libel and to compensate Adonis and other journalists who have been imprisoned under the provisions of the libel law. We endorse the call of the CMFR, the proposal of retired Justice Mendoza, and hope that political libel would once and for all be decriminalized to give the media the widest latitude of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

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TAGS: crime, Editorial, libel, opinion, politics
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