Tag Archives: justice

The scandalous nature of libel

By Romel Regalado Bagares

As a former journalist, I know intimately the terror of being made to face a criminal complaint that may eventually lead to a jail sentence: libel.

I was barely a month into my new job as a newspaperman in 1995  when I was slapped with a P5-million libel complaint before the Office of the Prosecutor in Pasay City. The complainant was a former Supreme Court justice, valedictorian of the illustrious Class of 1939 of the University of the Philippines College of Law and favored classmate to its most (in)famous alumnus  the late strongman Ferdinand Edralin  Marcos.

I had earlier reported on an entirely different complaint, one dealing with sexual harassment, filed with the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) against the good justice by a young woman who worked for him as a legal researcher. The good justice  – he was already 79 years old at that time –  denied it of course, and his denial came on strong in the form of a libel suit against me and the legal researcher.

My first reaction when I read the subpoena from the Office of the Prosecutor was panic: I was a 20-year-old cub reporter who was earning a measly sum of P5,500.00 a month as a news reporter.  All told, my assets consisted of no more than a few hundred books, most of them bought second-hand and therefore cheap,  a diploma from the state university,  and  youthful bravado that was thinning fast as I contemplated a bleak future in jail and penury.

I remember being received at his Makati City office by one of the newspaper’s lawyers, the well-known litigator Rogelio Vinluan, for an interview that lasted an hour. A young associate lawyer took down notes. “You barely look the part, “ Atty. Vinluan chuckled when he first saw me. But he quickly calmed my fears and told me not to worry.

Indeed, I was still wet behind the ears, as old hands used to say, and already, I was facing a big libel suit. To the credit of Atty. Vinluan’s  litigation prowess, the suit was eventually dismissed. A few years later, I would sit for the first time as a working student in a class on Evidence in the evening program of the UP College of Law,  with Atty. Vinluan as my professor. I don’t think he recognized me as a former client nor did I dare remind him of our former association. In any case, I passed his class.

Shortly after that, his law office would defend me in yet another libel case where I was sued for my reportage on a violent fraternity-related incident on campus that took the life of an innocent bystander – a journalism student who came from a very poor family and his family’s only hope for a better life.  The son of an influential family had been linked to the crime and I had duly reported on it. This time around, younger lawyers from Atty.  Vinluan’s firm  were assigned to defend me. Like the first one, the suit was dismissed  before it could even reach the courts.

I recall this part of my eight years working as a journalist  to bring home the point about criminal libel – how it seriously impairs a journalists’ work to ferret out the truth about a matter of public interest,  and how helpless a journalist could be if he or she is not supported by his or her media organization when sued for libel. In my case, my newspaper, The Philippine Star, did not abandon me but hired the best lawyers to defend me.

Unfortunately, for many Filipino journalists, especially those who work away from the center, a good defense lawyer for a libel case  is a luxury they cannot afford.

The Philippines, despite its democratic credentials,  has kept in its statute books criminal libel. It is a colonial legacy that time and again, powers-that-be have had no qualms deploying to stifle legitimate political dissent or any comment or reportage made in pursuit of the public interest.

As the American Bar Association‘s (ABA) Country Director Scott Ciment would say, criminal libel is an abhorrent practice that should have no place in any self-respecting democratic state “because it sends people to jail simply because of the words they say or write. ”

The Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd would say that a state with a deepened understanding of justice will know better than punish an act of defamation with imprisonment,  or penalize those who speak the truth to power with a jail term.

One piece of good news is that the United Nations Human Rights Committee recently declared that the Revised Penal Code’s provisions penalizing libel is “incompatible with Article 19, paragraph three of the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights,” which pertains to the freedom of expression.

Recalling  its General Comment No. 34, the UN body stressed that defamations laws should not stifle freedom of expression. “Penal defamation laws should include defense of truth,” it said. “[In] comments about public figures, consideration should be given to avoiding penalties or otherwise rendering unlawful untrue statements that have been published in error but without  malice. In any event, a public interest in the subject matter of the criticism should be recognized as a defense. State parties should consider the decriminalization of libel.”

The UNHRC’s view was expressed in connection with a complaint filed with it by Davao City broadcast journalist Alexander Adonis, who spent two years in jail after he was convicted of libeling former Speaker of the House Prospero Nograles.

Adonis’s crime was reading and dramatizing over his popular radio program a news report that then Congressman Nograles was seen running naked in the corridors of a hotel in the city after he was caught in bed by the husband of the woman who was said to the legislator’s mistress. The incident entered the collective memory of the citizens of Davao City as the “Burlesque King” scandal.

After serving two years in prison, with the legal assistance provide by the Center for International Law,  Adonis questioned, among other things,  whether criminal libel is compatible with the freedom of expression protected  under Art 19 of the ICCPR, to which the Philippines is a state party.

And the UNHRC‘s answer is a resounding no.

The UNHRC is a treaty monitoring body created under an optional protocol to the ICCPR with the power to declare that a State party to the Convention is in breach of its obligations under the covenant.

In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), only the Philippines signed up to the individual complaint mechanism that allows its citizens to file directly with the UNHRC  complaints for violations of their human rights.

While it is true that a UNHRC view is legally non-binding on an erring state, it carries persuasive weight that such a state cannot readily discount, not to mention the follow-up mechanism in the UN system  that repeatedly reminds the state of its continuing breach of obligations.

In the context of Philippine experience, it is yet the most powerful condemnation by an international body of the truly scandalous nature of criminal libel: of how, all too often, those in power hold on to it by suppressing those who dare to speak truth to power,  using their most readily available tool – a libel complaint.*

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An earlier version of this  essay first appeared in my column for the Iloilo City-based The News Today.

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Let us not forget

By  Romel Regalado Bagares

We reproduce below today’s editorial of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the second anniversary of the Maguindanao Massacre.

The second anniversary of the infamous Maguindanao massacre was marked yesterday on a pessimistic note and with diminished hope, the multiple-murder case against members of the powerful Ampatuan clan and their minions not having moved beyond the prosecution’s presentation of witnesses. The families of the victims – the formal count is 57, with the remains of the 58th yet to be found – are necessarily despondent, gripped by grief, bogged down in frustration over the glacial pace of the case, and, as a result of the death of loved one and/or primary breadwinner, hard put to get on with their lives or even to make ends meet.

Two years after the grisly slaughter that shocked even the jaded around the world, the enormousness of the task ahead remains. Only 72 of the prosecution’s at least 300 witnesses have been presented. As many as 103 of the 196 suspects are still at large (and “roaming around” in Cotabato City, Romel Bagares, a lawyer for the families, said in a TV interview). Of the 93 in custody, 29 have yet to be arraigned, among them Zaldy Ampatuan, a former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Of the 64 who have been arraigned, 50 have submitted petitions for bail, adding to the weighty load saddling the court of Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes.

If the numbers are daunting, imagine the difficulties (not only logistics-wise) that have arisen from transporting witnesses to the trial venue at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Taguig City, from Mindanao, and back. Imagine as well the travails of the families thrust by the massacre into a life of penury, of women in the twilight of their lives suddenly called upon to muster not only the wherewithal but also the strength (both physical and not) to bring up orphaned grandchildren. Imagine finally the lingering sorrow of the survivors, including a child unable to comprehend the disappearance of her mother from her life and now exhibiting the crippling effects of the beloved’s absence.

But the law appears blind to these things, not even to a daughter’s enduring desolation over the loss of a father who took her and her siblings to and from school, helped them with their homework, and bought them toys. There is no indication that accountability for the Nov. 23, 2009, murders – a study in “barbarism,” according to a cable from the US Embassy in Manila released by Wikileaks – will be pinpointed in the near future. A defense lawyer quoted in an Inquirer report said that he and his colleagues expected the trial to plod on for 18 years, and that he himself intended to present no less than 325 witnesses for his client. (The halfway attentive observer would find the remark laughable if it were not so odious, as odious as the unnamed lawyer’s claim that the case – from eyewitness accounts, a horrendous occurrence involving the murder in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, of 57 people among whom were 32 journalists and media workers, the vehicles that carried some of them found in the same pit, a backhoe bearing marks of the local government, spent shells from high-powered firearms –should not be prejudged.)

Last Tuesday, the next of kin of 15 of the victims filed a P15-million civil suit against Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was president at the time of the massacre, and whose patronage of the Ampatuans allowed them to rise to their position of power and influence. More than a bid for legal relief – the damages are a pittance – it is an act affirming the correctness of their search for justice in the face of great odds.

And the odds of overcoming the climate of impunity loom ever larger with the unabated killing of journalists. When he took power in 2010, President Aquino promised accountability for murderers, crooks and others who have committed crimes against the people. But the records show that since the Maguindanao massacre, six journalists have been slain (and scores of human rights workers, political activists, labor leaders and others have been abducted, tortured and killed). The prevailing climate has likewise proved inhospitable for journalists to freely exercise their profession, specially those in the rural areas where crime occurs as much in the light of day as in the dark of night.

But despite diminished hope, it is crucial to always remember, to always speak about, the fallen and what was done to them. It would be treachery to forget. [emphasis supplied]

Here’s also a link to a perfectly  reasonable proposal  by Prof. Harry L. Roque, Jr. on how the massacre trial may be speeded up.

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Giving GMA a taste of her own medicine?

Not so fast....PDI picture of GMA at the NAIA I

By Romel Regalado Bagares

Much as we want Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to answer for the crimes she committed while she was in power,   we do the very idea of the Rule of Law great harm by shirking from its high demands in our zeal to bring her to the proverbial bar of justice.

The Supreme Court has spoken, allowing her to travel abroad purportedly to seek medical treatment for her rare bone ailment,  despite our wishes to the contrary

If we must,  there are ways of holding accountable the honorable justices of the Supreme Court who gave her free rein; but  defying their collective decision and forcing a constitutional crisis is not one of them.

If, during her hold on power, Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo  distinguished herself by the cavalier way in which she dispensed with  even the smallest of judicial niceties to suit her crooked ends,  we must not do further damage to our judicial institutions by  giving her a taste of her own medicine.

President Beningno Aquino III rose to power on a high public expectation that he will hold Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo accountable for her administration’s misdeeds.

That until now, his Department of Justice has not filed a single case against her in court cannot be blamed on the accused;   It certainly defies any justifiable explanation why our prosecutors had not acted sooner.

The only possible explanation is the seeming lack of focus of this administration’s officials to do what should be done.

But what it also shows is the Aquino administration’s lack of imagination.

It  knew from the very beginning that Mrs.  Macapagal-Arroyo had  packed the Supreme Court with her appointees.

At the very least, it could already have anticipated exactly the kind of decision the High Court’s majority handed down earlier today and accordingly taken steps to deny the good justices the opportunity given to them to vote the way they voted today.

But instead it took its sweet while, issuing press releases about the urgent need to prosecute Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo without actually prosecuting her. As its prosecutors have now painfully learned, press releases do not a case make.

Too,  when it had strong public support, it waffled in its  position that the midnight appointment by Mrs.  Macapagal-Arroyo of Renato Corona as chief justice of the Supreme Court was unconstitutional. It could have forced the issue by calling for an impeachment of Corona and the other justices who closed ranks behind their colleague Mariano Del Castillo in the latter’s wanton plagiarism in the Comfort Women case.

That would have been the constitutional way of resisting the Corona Court’s unconstitutionality. Alas, even that opportunity, the Aquino administration failed to seize.

What a year-and-a-half of lost opportunities for the Aquino presidency.

And now it had to resort to highly doubtful legal sleight-of-hand to keep Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo from leaving the Philippines.  Irony of ironies, in order to uphold the rule of law, it has become necessary to trample on it.

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