Defamation Cases Getting “Out of Control” in the Philippines

Despite the approval of a new bill by the House of Representatives in the Philippines tipped to reduce the use of libel to harass journalists, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is concerned at the number of defamation charges still being used to silence journalists in the Philippines.

The Court of Appeals affirmed on July 31 the extreme conviction of Abante Tonite columnist and TV broadcaster Raffy Tulfo to 32 years prison and a Php14.7million (US$285,000) fine, on 14 counts of libel arising from several articles written nearly 10 years ago on a customs officer. The court ruled Tulfo’s reports showed “reckless disregard” for the truth.

“This sentence is not just unreasonable, it is totally excessive and makes a mockery of the legal system in the Philippines. 32 years in jail, not to mention the extortionate fine, simply for reporting is almost unfathomable. It is obvious the court system of the Philippines has no respect for freedom of expression,” the IFJ President Christopher Warren said.

“Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Cases such as this, and outrageous claims for civil damages, are being filed all over the country at an alarming rate. Clearly, not enough is being done to protect the fundamental right to free speech in the Philippines,” Warren said.

On August 3, former president Joseph Estrada filed a Php30million (approx. US$582,000) libel action against the Manila Standard Today and two individuals for allegedly accusing him of corruption.

Estrada reportedly filed a 19-page complaint against the newspaper’s editors and journalist Christine Herrera, as well as against Joelle Marie Pelaez and her mother, Blanquita, for their claims in a series of articles publishing between May 15-19, 2006.

Dante Fabian, a journalist with the Sun Star reportedly was sued by politician Francis Nepomuceno on August 3, for Php19million (approx. US$368,900) for three stories regarding an alleged water pipe scam.

According to local reports, Jose Miguel Arroyo, the husband of the Philippines president, has added to his record of defamation cases with plans to sue three journalists after allegedly getting their television program cancelled.

Arroyo has reportedly sued or is suing six politicians, two publishers, and 12 editors and writers, including this latest case.

“These attempts to control and censor what journalists are able to report on, by manipulating outdated laws, is a deliberate attempt to undermine press freedom in the Philippines,” Warren said.

The IFJ is heartened by news the Philippines’ House of Representatives approved House Bill 77 which is predicted to lessen the use of libel suits to harass media by requiring charges to be filed at the regional trial court of the province or city where the journalist, publication or broadcast station holds its principal office.

According to the bill, civil actions connected with such libel suits should also be filed in the same court where the criminal complaint is filed. The bill will now go before the Senate and then on to the Office of the President for approval.

“The IFJ urges the Senate, and the president’s office, to urgently pass this bill, as it is clear from recent developments that criminal defamation charges are getting out of control in the Philippines,” Warren said.

The IFJ again calls on the government of the Philippines to totally remove defamation from the criminal code.

For more information please contact IFJ Asia Pacific +61 2 9333 0919

The IFJ represents more than 500,000 journalists in over 115 countries