The following is a 27 November 2006 statement from CMFR, a SEAPA member based in the Philippines:
Libel suits are among the perils journalists must face in this and many other countries, including those where press freedom has long flourished. Most journalists are aware that violations of the libel law have corresponding consequences under the Philippine justice system.
A libel suit is properly decided in the courts. The libel suits filed by Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, against 43 reporters, columnists, editors and other journalists, are now sub judice. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), in any case, does not comment on the merits of any libel case until it has been resolved one way or the other.
CMFR does not dispute the right of Mr. Arroyo to file a libel suit against anyone he believes has wronged him through a libelous imputation. But CMFR believes that the sheer number of suits he has filed indicates that the suits are primarily intended to intimidate the press and to silence criticism against himself as well as his wife’s administration.
The primary reason libel suits are feared in the Philippine media community is their being, in this country, criminal offenses in the eyes of the law. A journalist can thus be arrested on a charge of libel, and, if found guilty, sentenced to a prison term in addition to being made to pay damages that can run into the millions.
CMFR initiated and has supported the call for the decriminalization of libel for over a decade. It urges media organizations, media advocacy groups and individual media practitioners to support this long-overdue step towards enhancing the exercise of press freedom in the Philippines.
In the meantime that the present libel law remains in force, however, the media community must assume the responsibility of opposing its use as a tool for harassment and as a means of eroding the press’ constitutionally protected freedom. Most, if not all, of the libel suits may not prosper. But the subjects of those suits are painfully aware of the context of these actions. They have not yet forgotten how the Proclamation of Emergency earlier this year occasioned the surveillance, harassment and intimidation of members of the media and news organizations. They know they are confronting powerful forces which have not shied away from taking bold measures to strike against the autonomy of the press.
Whether the charges prosper or not, their filing of so many cases has damaged the institutional force of the press as well as undermined the task of journalists. Their task, of monitoring government and holding powerful figures to account, strikes at democracy itself. It is in recognition of the damage that the suits have wreaked on the state of the free press that the civil suit against Mr. Arroyo was initiated by 42 of the 43 journalists he has sued for libel together with CMFR and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
The damage Mr. Arroyo’s suits against journalists has caused and may further cause is not limited to the erosion of press freedom. It is also a threat to Philippine democracy itself, given the crucial role that the press performs [on] behalf of the sovereign citizenry. He must be stopped, and others prevented from copying him.
Under these circumstances, CMFR is calling on the entire media and press community to join the 42 journalists, CMFR and the NUJP in this class action suit [on] behalf of the entire press community. While statements and protests have their uses, the press community must now take more concrete action which can include, beyond the filing of the civil suit, bringing the issue to the international arena.