Manila’s First Gentleman Stirs a Libel Hornet’s Nest

On the afternoon of November 13 last year, Mia Gonzales, a reporter for the Business Mirror in Manila, received an urgent phone call from a colleague working at the press office of the presidential palace. “Five policemen in plainclothes are here looking for you,” she was told.

Taken by surprise, Mia called her office and filed for emergency leave. She later learned that the cops were out to serve a warrant of arrest connected to a libel case filed against her by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s scandal-plagued husband, “First Gentleman” Mike Arroyo, for a story she had written three years previously in a local magazine.

She went to the police station the next day to post bail.

Staff members of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the nation’s biggest newspaper, were not so lucky. On March 19, policemen arrived at the paper’s office to arrest their publisher, editor in chief, and seven senior editors. This time it was for a P22 million (US$440,000) libel case filed by Mike Arroyo for articles written by columnist Ramon Tulfo, who had linked Arroyo to smuggling activities. Those arrested were released after spending an hour in jail and paying P50,000 ($1,000) each in bail.

The tarnished Philippines First Couple, assailed by charges big and small of corruption ranging from electoral fraud to involvement in illegal gambling, have turned to using outdated criminal libel statutes to harass the most freewheeling press in Asia. While libel can be a criminal offense, press freedom is as cherished here as anywhere in the world and it remains to be seen if the Arroyos can get away with going after influential media figures.

In 2004, not long after Gloria Arroyo squeaked through the presidential election, pursued by charges of ballot-box stuffing, her husband, a lawyer himself, began filing a string of libel cases against local journalists. To date, Mr. Arroyo, who has often figured in media accounts of corruption and cheating, has filed 11 cases against 46 journalists from various publications, demanding over P140 million ($2.8 million) in damages.

“He’s breaking records,” Glenda Gloria, an editor for Newsbreak magazine and a respondent in one of Mr. Arroyo’s libel cases, told Asia Sentinel. “The volume of libel cases he has filed is perhaps the most by any person in the world” – although he runs a distant second to Lee Kuan Yew, who has been using libel suits against political opponents and journalists for decades in Singapore’s politically tethered courts.

Indeed, this type of sweeping libel assault here is unique. Even during the short-lived administration of Joseph Estrada, whose government was often under attack before a coalition of business, church and military leaders overthrew him and installed Ms. Arroyo in power in 2001, libel cases were rare.

Opposition legislators and political candidates, at least six of whom also have libel cases filed against them by the First Gentleman, have called Mr. Arroyo’s actions reminiscent of the Martial Law period under Ferdinand Marcos.

Journalists here and abroad are crying foul. They note that it is strange for civic prosecutors to find merit in all of the libel cases filed by Mr. Arroyo, and that the normally sluggish justice system, which can often take years to accomplish anything, worked with unusual haste in some of the cases.

“Some of the cases seem like they were just filed to harass the media – warning that if you write something negative about me, I’ll file a libel suit against you,” says reporter Mia Gonzales.

Not that they think they are actually headed to prison. Most are confident that the cases against them have no merit, calling some of them even “whimsical”, but they are complaining about the financial strain and stress this libel mania is causing them. Inquirer-related publications have shelled out almost P1 million ($20,000) in bail money and related fees. Newsbreak, which ended the print run of its magazine and shifted to an online platform in January for financial reasons, has spent a few thousand dollars of its shoestring budget to keep its editors and reporters out of jail.

Glenda Gloria believes that Mike Arroyo is battling the media on behalf of the president, whose displeasure with the unfavorable coverage of her presidency is well known. For his part, Arroyo seems to time his filings by the political calendar. With general elections in May, he has been filing writs freely. Previously, in June 2004, just days after his wife was declared winner of the presidential elections, he filed five libel cases – two against the media, three against political opponents. "Enough is enough,” he has been quoted saying. “I think I could exercise my rights after the elections, and one of these rights is to sue people who malign me."

His plan may be backfiring. In December last year, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, along with several editors and reporters from various publications, filed a P 12.5 million ($250,000) class action suit against Arroyo, stating that he initiated a flurry of libel lawsuits against the media to stifle and/or chill the exercise of freedom of the press, thereby causing grave injury.

“[Mr. Arroyo] is abusing his right to litigate by filing libel suits against Plaintiffs, for virtually every criticism made against him, regardless of prevailing principles and jurisprudence on fair comment, privileged communication, and public interest,” the suit charged.

While the journalists behind the class action suit say that they do not expect a favorable ruling from the courts under the current administration, they say that the decision to file the complaint was a political statement. Also, they are exhausting all legal measures available, so that their case can eventually be heard by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The action has the support of international organizations like the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

"If the presidential spouse intends to send a message that journalists who dare to cross him will face a libel suit, then the victims – both the press and the people – must push back with a stronger message that contempt of press freedom is contempt of the people," SEAPA said in a statement.

IFJ, on the other hand, along with its local affiliate, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, called once again for decriminalization of the country’s libel law. IFJ President Christopher Warren has been quoted as saying: "As they stand, these libel laws are effectively a means for the government to intimidate and censor the media and to silence dissent."

In March, opposition politicians called for an amendment to the libel laws when a new congress is installed after May polls. The statute should not “be utilized for the perverse objective of concealing corruption from the people and as a refuge for corrupt officials to escape public accountability,” a group of lawmakers said in a statement.

In March, a local court dismissed a libel complaint that Mike Arroyo filed against former solicitor general Frank Chavez for linking him to a scam that allegedly diverted public agriculture funds into Gloria Arroyo’s campaign kitty. Aside from calling the complaint “patently defective”, the judge ruled that Mr. Arroyo is a public figure whose affairs can no longer be regarded as private business.

This ruling could have an impact on all the other libel cases. Instead of silencing the media and clearing his and his wife’s name, Mike Arroyo might have only stirred the hornets to greater fury.