Journalists Close Ranks vs Presidential Spouse: Reporters from 14 countries also condemn libel threats

“The record number of cases Mr. Arroyo has filed highlight how the powerful in this benighted land regularly abuse libel laws to curtail the democratic right of the press to delve into the truth behind matters of public interest and the people’s right to know.”

BY BULATLAT

Rather than creating a scare, the 43 libel cases filed by the husband of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo against several journalists are galvanizing the press together. With pen as their sword and with strong words of protest, at least 369 Filipino journalists took a common stand over the weekend to condemn the rising threat of “libel suit harassment” against reporters.

Joined by 44 colleagues from 14 countries and 21 local and international media organizations, the journalists also asked Jose Miguel Arroyo “to cease and desist from exploiting libel as a tool to cow the media.”

The journalists also called on Congress to immediately repeal the law on libel and strike it off the book of criminal statutes.

Signing a joint statement against the presidential spouse last Oct. 1 were, among others, Prof. Luis Teodoro, Jose Lacaba, Lorna Kalaw-Tirol, novelist-journalist Ninotchka Rosca, Jose Pavia of the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) and Adrian Cristobal; editors and columnists of the country’s broadsheets, newsmagazines, online publications and leading staffs of major broadcast networks.

Also signing were Carlos Conde, former NUJP secretary general; Ermin Garcia, Jr., publisher of Sunday Punch; the editors and correspondents of independent and non-commercial online publications Bulatlat, Northern Dispatch, Pinoy Weekly newspaper, Davao Today, Gitnang Luson News Service and others.

Foreign journalists and groups who supported the statement came from the United States, Canada, Japan, India, China (Hong Kong), Taiwan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Colombia, New Zealand, Australia and some European countries. Among them are the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) chairman Christopher Warren and secretary general Aidan White; Alan Kennedy, president of the Media Alliance of Australia; Serenade Lai Wan Woo, president of the Hong Kong Journalists Association; Tien Hsi Ju, president of the Association of Taiwan Journalists; and Edwin Mercurio of the Philippine Press Club-Ontario.

Publishers, editors, columnists and reporters of community papers in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao also joined the rising chorus against the Mr. Arroyo’s “wanton disregard for press freedom.”

Decriminalization of libel

The joint media statement, spearheaded by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), called for the decriminalization of libel, saying it has been predominantly used by public officials to intimidate an independent press.

Among the Philippine organizations that signed the petition are the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Bandillo ng Palawan, the Sorsogon Organization of News writers, Announcers and Reporters (SONAR), the Negros alternative media group Cobra-Ans, Manila Chinese Press Club (MCPC), Alyansa ng mga Filipinong Mamamahayag (AFIMA), Media Advocates for Reproductive Health and Empowerment (MAHRE) and Association of Responsible Media (ARM).

Aside from the IFJ, the international media groups that have signed the statement are the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, Southeast Asian Press Alliance, Hong Kong Journalists Association, National Union of Journalists (India), Indian Media Centre (India), Federation of Media Employee’s Trade Unions, Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) and Hong Kong Journalists Association.

The National Press Club also joined the NUJP’s call, with its president Roy Mabasa addressing the call directly at President Macapagal-Arroyo during the recent Gridiron. The President, whose 2004 election remains muddled by fraud allegations, was silent on Mabasa’s appeal, however, choosing instead to remind journalists to be responsible.

“We hope when President Arroyo sees the names of hundreds of journalists who have signed the petition, she will see the light,” said NUJP chairman Jose Torres. “It is her powerful spouse, Mike Arroyo, who is doing so much to damage press freedom in this country.”

The statement was an offshoot of a roundtable discussion on libel organized by NUJP, the national affiliate of the IFJ. It scored Mr. Arroyo for filing multiple libel cases 43 reporters, columnists, editors, publishers, and even a subscription manager, of various publications.

No ordinary mortal

“We will not dispute the merits of the cases nor Mr. Arroyo’s right to defend his honor and dignity,” the statement said.  “What we decry is his propensity to sue journalists so as to muzzle those he does not agree with and sending out a clear signal to others that they risk the same ordeal should they dare cross him.”

The journalists reminded Mr. Arroyo that he is “no ordinary mortal” but both a public figure and a public official, who gives his address as “Malacañang.”
“As Presidential husband, he clearly enjoys immense power and influence, not just by his status but also because he does head the Office of the First Gentleman. And many, if not most, of his deeds and pronouncements dwell in the realm of public interest,” the journalists said.

“The record number of cases Mr. Arroyo has filed highlight how the powerful in this benighted land regularly abuse libel laws to curtail the democratic right of the press to delve into the truth behind matters of public interest and the people’s right to know,” said the statement.

The abusive behavior of Mr. Arroyo, journalists added, is “the best argument for decriminalizing an outdated law that has been used not so much to protect the innocent as to shield the guilty.”

Fighting on

Instead of using libel to harass journalists, the petitioners challenged the Mr. Arroyo to “squarely face the issues raised against him where they are properly addressed, in the arena of free and democratic discourse.”

“We pledge that neither this nor any other attempts by those in power to trample on the freedom of the press and the people’s right to know shall go unchallenged,” the signatories said. “We commit ourselves to the continued struggle to realize the true blooming of democracy in our land, when freedom of expression shall be enshrined not just in our aspirations but in practice.” Bulatlat

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