Journalist groups decry Cusi and Uy’s libel suits over Malampaya reports

Journalist groups decry Cusi and Uy�s libel suits over Malampaya reports
A student holds a placard during a protest at the state university grounds in Manila on February 14, 2019, in support of CEO of Rappler, Maria Ressa, who was arrested a day earlier for cyber libel case. Ressa was freed on bail on February 14 following an arrest that sparked international censure and allegations she is being targeted over her news site's criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte.
AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines (Updated Dec. 5, 5:54 a.m.) — Organizations of journalists cried foul over the libel complaints filed by Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi and businessman Dennis Uy against seven news outlets who reported on the graft complaint filed against them over the controversial Malampaya gas field buyout.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, in a statement, expressed solidarity with the 17 respondents and demanded that charges be dropped.

“The complaints, filed at the same time across seven news organizations, are clear harassment suits meant to intimidate and chill the press,” the NUJP said.

“We urge Secretary Cusi to drop the complaints and, instead, focus his attention on explaining to the public what happened in the Malampaya gas deal,” it added.

The Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines, whose members are business reporters and editors, also denounced the libel suits against its colleagues as an "assault to press freedom."

“The media is simply doing its job — to report based on facts presented to them. Secretary Cusi is a public official and is therefore subject to scrutiny. The issue at hand is not a simple transaction as this involves a state-owned asset crucial to the country’s energy security,” the EJAP said.

In his complaint, Cusi accused journalists of "malicious" reporting and imputation of graft against him. He explained his decision to file libel cases in a separate statement, saying the move was “to protect the integrity” of public officials and “to support and honor them.”

The news organizations whose executives, editors and reporters are facing Cusi and Uy’s libel complaints are ABS-CBN, Business Mirror, BusinessWorld, GMA News Online, Manila Bulletin, Philstar.com and Rappler.

The P200 million Cusi is seeking in damages from the news organizations could “cripple” them, the NUJP said, adding that even if this were not to be enforced, the lawyers’ fees and time they would spend are “enough to send a chill.”

“It is meant to say: Be careful what you report next. It is the textbook definition of a chilling effect,” the guild said.

Stories produced by the seven news organizations sued by Cusi and Uy were based on a press conference, a press release and a complaint before the Office of the Ombudsman, which, the group explained, are all “fair game” in journalism.

It also pointed out that journalists merely reported on the graft complaint lodged against Cusi and Uy and never accused him of graft.

Four other mainstream media outlets—Inquirer, CNN Philippines, Manila Standard and Manila Times—ran similar reports about the graft cases but were not included in Cusi's libel complaints.

The Senate energy panel led by Senator Sherwin Gatchalian is investigating the alleged irregularity of the purchase of shares of the Malampaya gas field, which is now 90% owned by Uy, a major campaign donor to President Rodrigo Duterte, through two subsidiaries. The remaining 10% belongs to state-run Philippine National Oil Corp.

The gas project, operational since 2001 and accounts for 40% of Luzon’s annual energy requirements, is seen for decommissioning between 2027 and 2029 after a projected decline in energy output starting 2024 — the year the service contract would expire.

Malampaya also generates revenues for both national and local governments in the form of royalties. Last year, the former’s share, which accounted for 60% of total, reached P26.57 billion.

‘Protect, support public officials’

Cusi, in his statement, added that the cases are his way “to defend my family’s honor and to send a strong message that there is a fair and humane way to settle misunderstandings and differences without resorting to malicious news reporting.”

But the NUJP added that journalists do not work to settle misunderstandings and differences but to report them.

“We are the public’s guardians — out to report on matters like this, a difference of opinion between the executive and the legislative, the latter pointing out that there were shortcuts to approve the sale of billion-peso shares of the Malampaya project, a crucial public infrastructure,” the union said.

“Keeping his reputation clean is not the job of journalists, but his own,” it said.

In an alert about the cases, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility noted its campaign to decriminalize the 84-year-old libel law, which the United Nations Human Rights Committee had called the Philippines' law "excessive" as a criminal offense. — Xave Gregorio

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