Defamation as Censorship in the Philippines
At some time before the end of January, the Philippines public prosecutor is to decide whether to bring criminal libel charges against respected journalist Marites Danguilan Vitug, over a complaint that she had libeled a Supreme Court Justice in a recent book.
Specifically, Justice Presbitero Velasco took exception to an assertion that he had helped his son’s campaign to become a congressman. In her book Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court, Vitug described the "ethical minefield" the elder Velasco allegedly faced when his son, Lord Allan Vellasco, took on Edmundo Reyes Jr., the scion of a political family and an ally of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Lord Allan won the seat in the 2010 Congressional elections.
It appears to be the first time that a sitting Supreme Court justice has filed a such a case against anyone.
"How far can a father help a son win an election race—if he happens to be a justice of the Supreme Court?" Vitug asked in the book. "Not that far, if judicial ethics were to be followed."
Without going into the veracity of the allegations against either Velasco or Vitug, a veteran journalist who chairs the advisory board for the investigative journalism operation Newsbreak, the charges serve to illustrate the dangers inherent in the Philippines’ criminal libel law, under which truth alone is not a defense and conviction can result in a jail term of four years. An organized campaign has been on for years to repeal the criminalization of such cases. So far the Philippine legislature has refused to do so.
And, although criminal libel has been used against journalists in several Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand – and Singapore has its own notorious record – there are few countries where the art of going after journalists with defamation laws is so enthusiastically practiced.
The use of such libel laws is especially effective against smaller publications, radio and television stations in provinces far from the capital, according to Melinda de Jesus of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in Manila. At one point, de Jesus told Asia Sentinel, 150 criminal libel suits were filed against one paper in a single year.
"There used to be a period when basically you felt if you had a libel case filed against you, you were hard-hitting and it was worn like a purple heart," de Jesus said. "We do have a highly complex, multilayered system, in terms of the time and process it takes for an issue to go through. But that has not affected how quickly public officials file cases. Of most of the cases filed, few end in convictions."
Miguel Arroyo, the husband of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, filed 43 complaints seeking P70 million (US$1.52 million at current exchange rates) against editors, publishers and reporters in 2006 and 2007, earning a denunciation from the international press protection organization Reporters Without Borders for hounding reporters and "eroding press freedom in the Philippines." Most of the stories contained allegations of corruption on the part of the president and her husband. Eventually, all of the suits were dismissed.
In the case of Justice Velasco, "How can the Supreme Court allow the case to go forward when the Supreme Court polices the legal system?" de Jesus asked. "I don’t know."
The 15-person high court has repeatedly been accused of outright corruption. All of its members except for Ma. Lourdes Aranal Sereno were appointed by former President Arroyo. Sereno was appointed by the current president, Benigno Acquino III. The rest of the court have assiduously protected Arroyo from investigation into corruption during her reign as president. In 2008, the court was ranked 141st among 180 countries surveyed, scoring 2.3 on the corruption perceptions index, on a scale where 10 is the highest possible grade.
"They should also recognize that they are public officials so they should not be excepted from being scrutinized," said Rowena Paraan of the National Union of Journalists. "In the same way, the court won’t allow journalists to get statement of the assets of justices. It seems they don’t want to be criticized in a book or newspaper article."
In the book, Vitug quoted residents of the Marinduque constituency as saying the Supreme Court justice was active in organizing his son’s ticket, inviting two local officials to run with his son as councillor and promising to underwrite campaign expenses, and that he was also present in Allan’s meetings with local leaders in his beachfront residence in Torrijos, Marinduque.
"He filed a libel suit on the eve of the launch of my book," Vitug told Asia Sentinel. "It's my word against Velasco's. I'm confident about my story. But, you know, in Philippine society, how the culture in the judiciary works."
Of course, in the Philippines, the threat of criminal libel may be a problem, but a bigger problem is being murdered. Since 1992, 70 journalists have been killed in connection with their jobs, 31 journalists and other media workers in a single horrific incident in the province of Maguindanao on the island of Mindanao on Nov. 23, 2009. Another 29 have been murdered over the same period but no motive has been established. Two – Joselito Agustin of Radio Station DZJC, and Desidario Camangyan, Sunrise FM Radio, were killed in 2010 in connection with their work and a third, Miguel Belen of Radio Station DWEB, was also murdered but no motive has been established.