Just last week on December 13, Baguio journalist Frank Cimatu was convicted of cyberlibel because of a Facebook post he’d written about former Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol.
Philippine libel laws have been found by the United Nations Human Rights (UNHR) Committee to be in violation of an international treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that the country signed in 1986.
Its Article 19 provides that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression,” and that “this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”
Last July, UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan criticized the Philippines Court of Appeals’ decision to uphold the 2020 cyber libel conviction of Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and Rappler former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr.
Cimatu also writes for Rappler.
“The criminalization of journalists for libel impedes public interest reporting and is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. Criminal libel law has no place in a democratic country and should be repealed,” Khan said.
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) called criminal libel “one of the most abused means to suppress free expression and press freedom in the Philippines.”
Media and writers groups see libel and cyberlibel as a way of silencing voices and as indicators of a culture of impunity that punishes those who speak truth to power.
In a statement condemning the weaponization of the cybercrime law against Cimatu, the Likhaan: UP Institute of Creative Writing (UP ICW) slammed the prevailing “culture of punishing writers and academics who are branded as criminals in their pursuit of truth.”
The Baguio Writers Group (BWG), in a statement supporting Cimatu, also pointed out that “one given case, such as this one, does not stand in isolation but is part of an ever-increasing trend to intimidate and constrict the space afforded to free public expression and association that can currently be seen across a number of domains in the nation.”
The UP ICW added that the role of journalists is very important in society.
As we learned in our communication courses in school, journalists provide a check-and-balance among the different social institutions, particularly those that abuse their power.
“In a time of disinformation,” the UP ICW wrote in its statement, “scrutiny of civil servants and healthy discourse among the citizenry is crucial in ensuring that power is distributed evenly in our democratic society. It is more urgent now that we gather information from as many sources as possible.”
The success of the Fourth Estate’s efforts at check-and-balance hinges on freedom of speech and expression, rights granted under the Constitution.
Sec. 4 provides that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
In relation to this, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), in a statement, “reiterate[d] its position that libel laws should be decriminalized as these are not compatible with the Bill of Rights stated in the Philippine Constitution and with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which the Philippines is a state party.
“Even worse is the fact that penalties for cyberlibel are stiffer compared to ordinary libel. This makes cyberlibel a Damocles’ sword hanging above our head, and reinforces the chilling effect that Filipino journalists need to confront every day in this benighted land.”
In its own statement, PEN Philippines pointed out that “the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 metes out stiffer penalties than ordinary libel, allowing persons to use the law to terrorize writers and journalists.”
Referring to the Cimatu case in particular, NUJP wrote it “maintains that the right to free expression and press freedom is paramount especially when exercised in relation to public officials.”
As the BWG pointed out, “It is the right of journalists, writers and individual citizens more widely to comment on, communicate their opinions about, and in some cases even satirize public figures, including public officials. Such freedoms, and the allowance of space for such freedoms, are the foundations of a democratic and healthy society.”
The NUJP noted that “A powerful politician such as Piñol crying foul over a Facebook post of a community journalist is ironic in a supposed democratic country.
“ Under the comments on the same post, Piñol himself issued threats and derogatory remarks against Cimatu. Online trolls flooded Cimatu’s Facebook account with vitriol. Cimatu’s case is proof how government officials use libel as a weapon to harass and intimidate journalists.”
PEN Philippines also mentioned that Senator Rita Hontiveros “has filed Sen. Bill 1593, which aims to decriminalize libel and stop the weaponization of libel laws against journalists and writers. PEN Philippines supports all measures that seek to decriminalize libel.”
Similarly, the UP ICW wrote, “We support the calls of journalists to decriminalize cyberlibel. Its broad application can be easily abused to suppress press freedom, and is a threat to the freedom of speech in a time when many take to social media to express their opinions.”
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that should be respected and protected.
It is an essential part of a vibrant and open democracy that allows citizens to express their ideas without fear of censorship or retribution.
It enables citizens to participate in the political and civic process and ensure their opinions and are taken into account when decisions are made.
Decriminalizing libel is also essential, because as it is, it is libel laws are being abused to repress healthy dissent.
“Our libel laws have been weaponized to stifle very basic fundamental rights,” Hontiveros said in a statement upon filing the “Decriminalization of Libel Act” the same day Cimatu was convicted of cyberlibel.
“These laws have been used to constantly attack many of our freedoms, but particularly the freedom of the press. We need to decriminalize libel if we are to truly defend press freedom,” she said.
(* * * Dr. Ortuoste is a board member of PEN Philippines, member of the Manila Critics Circle, and judge of the National Book Awards. FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO )