On December 13, journalist Frank Cimatu was convicted of cyber libel, with a minimum jail term of six months and a maximum of five years, five months and eleven days, plus damages payable of PHP 300,000 (approx. USD 5,400).
In 2017, Cimatu published a post on social media platform Facebook questioning the conduct of former Philippines agriculture minister, Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Piñol, during the nation’s 2017 bird flu pandemic. The post, reading “Agri Sec got rich by 21 M in 6 months. Bird flu pa more”, was found by Judge Evangeline Cabochan-Santos to injure the reputation of Piñol by insinuating the former minister conducted corrupt acts.
In an official statement, Judge Cabochan-Santos ruled that the 2017 post constituted defamation by ‘making it appear’ as though Piñol had committed criminal activity to gain PHP 21,000,000 (approx. USD 378,200) over six months. The court further noted that as Cimatu’s post was deemed publicly accessible and failed to ‘provide proof’, the journalist had legally acted in malice.
The court’s decision has been widely condemned by journalists, human rights organisations and press freedom advocates, who have urged Filipino authorities to overturn the conviction and decriminalise libel. Local media and writer’s organisations, including members from NUJP’s Baguio-Benguet chapter, expressed solidarity with Cimatu and echoed calls for his immediate release.
The NUJP said: “The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines is saddened by a Quezon City local court decision convicting journalist Frank Cimatu of cyber libel. Cimatu's case is proof of how government officials use libel as a weapon to harass and intimidate journalists. NUJP reiterates its position that libel laws should be decriminalised 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.”
The IFJ said: “The weaponisation of libel charges to target independent and critical journalism is contrary to the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, freedom of press and democracy guaranteed under the constitution of the Philippines. All journalists must be able to work without fear of arrest or reprisal for their reporting or online commentary. The IFJ calls on the Filipino authorities to overturn Cimatu’s conviction and decriminalise all forms of libel in the country.”