The journalists suing First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo for abuse of right and for violating their right to the free exercise of their profession shrugged off Mr. Arroyo’s motion to dismiss their complaint, and maintained that their suit is meant to defend press freedom and democracy against Mr. Arroyo’s efforts to undermine both, according to a press release from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a SEAPA founding member.
Speaking through their lawyer, University of the Philippines law professor Harry Roque, the journalists said that the Arroyo’ motion is based on technicalities and on a wrong interpretation of the rules and is thus devoid of merit.
“He claims the journalists did not pay the correct docket fees, and yet it is very clear from the Prayer of the complaint that all that they are collectively praying for from the the court is it grant them from the First Gentleman a total sum of P12.5 million (approx. US$255,102) in damages.
“It is correct that the P12.5 million is not sufficient money to compensate the journalists for the damage the Arroyo libel suits have caused them, free expression, and the country’s democracy in general. However, because they were able to raise only enough funds to pay for docket fees only for damage claims amounting to P12.5 million, the journalists settled for that symbolic amount,” Roque said.
“It is the view, in fact, of my clients that the amount of damage caused by Mr. Arroyo is unquantifiable, given the normative value of freedom of the press as indispensable for arriving at the truth, and in shaping the informed public opinion necessary to check an abusive government,” Roque continued.
“Arroyo’s motion to dismiss also alleged that those not sued by the First Gentleman have no cause of action. The journalists’ complaint, however, states that because of the filing of these baseless libel suits, the First Gentleman is ‘chilling’ the exercise of freedom of the press by abusing his right to sue for libel, and is thus in violation of articles 19, 20, 21 and 32 of the New Civil Code.”
The chilling effect of his libel suits is being felt by all media practitioners and not just by those sued by Mr. Arroyo. Mr. Arroyo is fully aware of the adverse effect of his libel suits on press freedom in general. Here, the journalists explained, it is the law itself that gives them the cause of action precisely because what is in dispute is not whether he has the legal right to file these suits, but whether he is abusing his right to do so in a deliberate and systematic effort to curtail press freedom, and thus further weaken Philippine democracy.
But Roque welcomed the Arroyo motion to dismiss and his answer to the journalists’ complaint as a virtual admission that the First Gentleman is guilty of abuse of right:
“There is not a single denial that Mr. Arroyo abused his right to file these cases. He only claimed that he had a right to file these cases, which my clients do not dispute. In the absence of such a denial, the effect is an admission.”
The journalists also claimed that it is likewise preposterous to say that only human beings are protected by the free speech and free press clause of the Constitution.
“He forgets that the leading cases on libel in the United States and in the Philippines involved juridical entities such as the “Manila Times”, the “Philippines Star” and the “Manila Bulletin”. The claim that media outfits such as PCIJ (Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism), CFMR and other journalists groups cannot sue Mr. Arroyo for undermining the freedom of the press is grossly ignorant of the law,” Roque said on behalf of his clients.
On the so-called ground that the venue for the journalists’ suit was improperly laid in Makati, Roque stressed that it is alleged in the complaint that journalist Vergel Santos, one of the plaintiffs, is a resident of Palanan, Makati. A case may be filed in the locality where either the plaintiff or the defendant resides.
Likewise, all the so-called technical defects of the suit, such as lack of certification of non-forum shopping, are without merit since the record will bear that these certificates are found in the records of the court.
“Even assuming that these defects are true, the fact is that the case will still proceed since Mr. Arroyo did not allege a complete absence of these certificates”, Roque explained.
“Mr. Arroyo probably confuses our courts of law with a political body such as the House of Representatives. He will not get the same results that he got from the House from a competent tribunal such as the Regional Trial Court of Makati with competent and morally upright judges,” Roque added.
“My clients are not suing for themselves as individuals alone, but for the entire Philippine press and in defense of democracy,” Roque concluded.