Stiff Philippine Libel Law Used Against Journalist

Marites Danguilan Vitug, a respected Filipina journalist, was forced to post P10,000 bail Friday on criminal libel charges that she had defamed Supreme Court Justice Presbitero Velasco in a recent book.

Vitug and her supporters had hoped that the prosecutor would decline to file charges, which Velasco first demanded in 2009. The justice took exception to an assertion that he had helped the congressional campaign of his son, Lord Allan Velasco, who beat out Edmondo Reyes Jr., the scion of a political family and an ally of former President Gloria Arroyo in the 2010 congressional elections.

It is believed to be the first time that a Philippine Supreme Court justice has filed such a case against anyone including a journalist, Vitug said. That makes it questionable how the case can proceed through the lower courts, since the 15-person high court polices the legal system.

Under the Philippines criminal libel laws, truth alone is not a defense and conviction can result in a jail term of up to four years. The law presumes up front that malice is present in every defamatory imputation, “even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown,” according to the statute. Thus the prosecution need not prove malice on the part of the defendant, for the law already presumes that the defendant’s imputation is malicious (malice in law). The burden is on the side of the defendant to show good intention and justifiable motive in order to overcome the legal inference of malice.

The laws have been used by a long series of Filipino politicians and business figures including Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, the former president’s husband, to attempt to quell critical reporting. Arroyo filed 43 complaints seeking P70 million 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.

“If we are found guilty, we’ve got to go to prison,” Vitug said in a telephone interview. “But it is not common for journalists to be convicted in the Philippines. The courts work very slowly, there have only been two cases so far of journalists who have actually spent time in jail, and the sentences have been short.” It is not clear at this point when the case will come to trial, said Vitug, who chairs the advisory board for the investigative journalism operation Newsbreak.

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 in an earlier interview. 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."

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.