By ALYSSA MAE CLARIN
MANILA – Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi filed libel complaints against 17 reporters and editors from seven media organizations last week for reporting the graft and corruption case filed against him over the controversial Malampaya energy deal.
The libel suit was filed on Nov. 29 but only became public last week. The 17 reporters and editors were from ABS-CBN, BusinessWorld, Rappler, Philstar.com, The Philippine STAR, Manila Bulletin, GMA News Online, and BusinessMirror.
This, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said, is a “clear harassment suit meant to intimidate and chill the press.”
The controversial $4.5 billion Malampaya gas project, located offshore northwest of Palawan, fuels about 20 percent of the country’s electricity requirements.
Shell Philippines Exploration B.V. (SPEX), one of the operators of the gas facility, sold 15 percent of its stake in the Malampaya project to Dennis Uy’s Uddena unit. At the same time, Uddena Corporation also purchased 45 percent of Chevron Philippines’ interest in the gas field. Early 2019, Uy admitted having close ties with the President.
The Department of Energy approved the transfer of Chevron’s stake on the gas field to Udenna, but had put the transaction between Shell and Udenna on hold for review. If Udenna’s buyout of Shell’s stake pushes through, this would give Udenna Corp. a 90 percent hold over the Malampaya project, leaving the remaining 10 percent to the Philippine National Oil Company.
Various groups had since urged the Senate and concerned government agencies to probe the buyout, saying that “the government should scrutinize the buyer’s financial and technical capabilities and exercise its right to block and invalidate transfers that may be disadvantageous to the Filipino people.”
The filing of charges
On Oct. 18, a graft and corruption case was filed against Cusi and Uy before the Office of the Ombudsman. Complainants alleged that the sale of the Malampaya gas-to-power project to Uy’s Udenna Corp is anomalous.
In the complaint, they said that Cusi and the other respondents have conspired to give “unwarranted benefits and advantage” to Uy’s corporation and its subsidiary, UC Malampaya – previously owned by Chevron Philippines and renamed UC Malampaya Philippines Pte. Ltd after it was bought by Uy last year.
The filing of the graft charges was covered and reported by the media.
However, Cusi, in his libel complaints, alleged that by reporting on the graft suit filed against them, the journalists have “publicly accused him of graft.”
Seven media outfits, 17 reporters, editors, and executives were named as respondents in the libel suit: ABS-CBN’s Carlo Katigbak and Lynda Jumilla; Rappler’s Maria Ressa, Aika Rey, Glenda Gloria, and Chay Hofileña; GMA News’ Jaemark Tordecilla and Ted Cordero; Philippine Business Daily Mirror’s Samuel Medenilla, Lenie Lectura, and Lourdes Fernandez; PhilStar’s Camille Diola, Rhodina Villanueva, and Ian Nicolas Cigaral; Manila Bulletin’s Loreto Cabañes and Jel Santos.
Uy also filed libel and cyber-libel cases against four reporters from three media outfits, namely Business World’s Wilfedo Reyes and Angelica Añago, Business Mirror’s Benjamin Ramos, ABS-CBN News’ Anjo Bagaoisan, and Rodel Rodis who is one of the private complainants for the graft suit.
Cusi demanded that each individual respondent and company pay damages worth P200 million, and said in a statement that he filed the complaints “to protect the integrity of public servants.”
A similar case happened in 2014 after dzBB news anchor Carmelo del Prado filed libel charges against The Philippine Daily Inquirer editors for its 2014 investigative reports linking the broadcaster to the 10-billion Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam.
Del Prado said that the stories had alleged that the broadcaster, along with other media personalities, received payoffs from the National Agribusiness Corp.(Nabcor) in the guise of ad payments.
The complaint resulted in a seven-year libel litigation between Inquirer and del Prado after the news organization stood by its stories, saying that the reports were “supported by statements” from sources and had undergone careful investigation by the reporters and editors.
Earlier this year, however, new Inquirer chair Raub Labaricia issued an apology and urged the charged reporters and editors to sign a compromise agreement with Del Prado to drop the complaint. Inquirer also agreed to post the apology to Del Prado on Inquirer’s front page, remove the stories related to the libel complaint, and pay damages worth P1.5 million in ad space.
The NUJP said that Cusi’s complaint deliberately misled the public’s view of the role of journalists, especially since the subject of the libel suit are stories published based on press conferences, press releases, and complaints filed before the Ombudsman.
“The journalist did not accuse him, the complainants did,” said the group in their released statement. “The journalists only covered the complaint.”
The group then reiterated their call to decriminalize libel and urged Cusi to withdraw his complaint.
In a statement dated July 2021, the NUJP noted that 20 of the 37 libel and cyber libel against journalists under the current administration were filed during the pandemic. It was also during the pandemic that Rappler’s Maria Ressa and former journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted over cyberlibel charges.