In Philippines, journalists and media organisations sue president’s husband for chilling effect on press freedom

alerts-button-1.jpgMore than half of the 45 reporters, columnists, editors and publishers the First Gentleman, Jose Miguel Arroyo, has sued for libel are filing a civil class action suit against him on 28 December 2006, according to a release from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), a SEAPA founding member.

Because the suit is being filed on behalf of the press, the journalists have been joined by other journalists and media and journalists’ organizations, among them the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and The Daily Tribune.

The class suit is asking for P15 million (approx. US$305,630) in damages for the anxiety, loss of income and other inconveniences Arroyo’s libel suits have allegedly caused. But it also argues that the suits have not only caused the respondents sleepless nights; they also have a chilling effect on press freedom. Should it prosper, the P15 million will go into a press freedom fund.

The suit does not dispute the right of Arroyo to file libel charges against anyone he believes has wronged him through a libelous imputation. Journalists are also aware that libel suits are part of the media territory. But the sheer number of suits he has filed (10 against 45 respondents) suggests that these are primarily intended to intimidate the press and silence criticism.

Arroyo claims he has no such intention. He describes himself as a private citizen rather than a public official, despite the fact that there is an Office of the First Gentleman maintained by public funds – and despite the influence and power he wields as the President’s spouse.

Libel is a criminal offense in the Philippines. A journalist can be arrested for libel, and, if found guilty, sentenced to a prison term and made to pay damages that can run into the millions.

Arroyo’s claims for damages in the 10 cases he has filed amount to at least P141 million (approx. US$2,872,919). Last month one of the journalists Arroyo has sued was nearly arrested in the Malacanang press office itself. She would have spent at least a night in jail if the police had found her there.

But it was evident that the attempted arrest was also meant to intimidate her and her media colleagues.

Media and journalists’ organizations have called for the de-criminalization of libel to stop such threats to journalists and to press freedom. While the present libel law remains in force, however, the media must fight back and oppose its use as a tool of harassment and as a means of eroding the constitutionally-protected freedom of the press.

Most if not all of the First Gentleman’s libel suits may not prosper. But the subjects of those suits are painfully aware of the context of his actions. They fully remember how Proclamation 1017 allowed the surveillance, harassment and intimidation of journalists and news organizations. Rather than relent, the powerful forces they are confronting continue to assault the autonomy of the press.

The filing of so many cases against journalists undermines the task of the journalist, so essential to democracy, of monitoring government and holding powerful figures to account. It is in recognition of the damage the Arroyo suits have wreaked that the civil suit is being pursued by the complainants.

But the damage Arroyo’s suits against journalists has caused and may further cause is not limited to the erosion of press freedom. They are also a threat to Philippine democracy, given the crucial role of the press on behalf of the sovereign citizenry. This intimidation must be stopped, not only for the sake of press freedom, but for the sake of democracy itself.

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