Libel raps vs media revive call for Senate hearings into Malampaya deal

In this file photo from 2018, Sen. Risa Hontiveros addresses a youth forum.
Office of Sen. Risa Hontiveros, File

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 3:18 p.m.) —  A number of senators have condemned the libel suits filed by Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi and Udenna Corp. chairman Dennis Uy against several media outlets over coverage of the controversial Malampaya gas field buyout. 

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, a member of the Senate minority, also revived her call for the Senate to look into the deal, saying it has implications on energy development and on national security.

"There is no basis to the libel cases filed left and right by [Cusi] and [Uy] against seven news organizations," Hontiveros, a reelectionist, said in a statement delivered mostly in Filipino during a briefing with media. 

"I also strongly condemn the clear act of harassment against journalists," she added. "This is outright intimidation." 

This was echoed by detained Sen. Leila de Lima, also a reelectionist, who likened the suits filed by Cusi to strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) which are intended to intimidate or silence critics. 

"The intent of SLAPP suits is not to win the case but to harass people enough to discourage them from speaking out further by forcing them to undergo the expense and rigors of intense litigation," De Lima, a former justice secretary, said later Tuesday. 

"[T]he cases Cusi filed against our media should be dismissed for being frivolous, baseless, and ultimately violative of our Constitution." 

The outlets in question — ABS-CBN, Business Mirror, Business World, GMA News Online, Manila Bulletin, Philstar.com, and Rappler — were among those who reported on a graft complaint filed against Cusi and Uy over alleged anomalies in the sale of shares in the Malampaya project.

READ: Cusi, Dennis Uy sued for 'anomalies' in Malampaya share sale

Cusi is demanding P200 million from each media entity for publishing stories that he said "damaged" his "good reputation and good standing in government." 

But Hontiveros quipped: "Isn’t it ironic that while Secretary Cusi is gagging the media, he and Mr. Dennis Uy are avoiding answering the Filipino people's questions?" 

She also advised Cusi to not be "onion-skinned" about the reports. "Let us remember, what is at stake here is the energy development, economic growth and national security of the whole country." 

Over the weekend, Sen. Manny Pacquiao — a presidential candidate who has been feuding with Cusi for months over fractures in the administration PDP-Laban party — asserted that "it is the right [and] the job of reporters to come out with stories that inform the public when someone steals or commits nonsense against the government."

"They are just doing their job. There is basis to their [reporting]," Pacquiao said during a chance interview on Saturday, parts of which were published by ABS-CBN on social media. 

"Let's let [reporters] do their job," he added, addressing Cusi directly. 

Senate probe urged anew 

Hontiveros earlier filed Senate Resolution No. 950 for the chamber's energy panel to "conduct an inquiry into the propriety of allowing a single private entity to control almost all of the nation's strategic fossil energy assets in the West Philippine Sea." 

The resolution is currently pending at the committee level but Hontiveros, pushing for the immediate launch of a probe, noted that Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy, can take up the investigation motu proprio or without a formal request. 

"Let's go back to the questions: Why did the Department of Energy and the Philippine National Oil Company allow Udenna to liquidate the shares of Malampaya?" she said. 

"Why did PNOC not exercise its right of first refusal? These are all valid questions that must be truthfully answered." 

"Are the sales of our strategic assets per kilo?" Hontiveros said, referring to government deals with companies linked to Uy.

DITO, the country's third telco, is a joint venture among Uy's companies and China Telecommunications Corp. 

Press groups assail libel raps

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility on Tuesday called the libel suits "another attempt to intimidate, harass, and ultimately to silence the press," saying also that they "could not have stood on flimsier ground."

"The allegations — in general, a lack of due diligence on the part of certain officials, resulting in a shortchanging of the government — have been made openly and formally and are unmistakably a matter of public interest, given in particular the two men involved in it," CMFR, which monitors news coverage as well as press freedom issues. 

On Monday, the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines expressed its alarm over the libel cases filed against their colleagues. 

"The libel complaint can intimidate and muzzle independent and courageous reporting on issues surrounding Malampaya, a critical infrastructure that supplies a fifth of the Philippines’ energy requirements and benefits millions of Filipinos and businesses," FOCAP said. 

"The Senate Committee on Energy has conducted an inquiry on Malampaya’s change of ownership and various business groups have supported the probe, underscoring the profound level of public interest in the issue," it added. 

Decriminalization of libel

CMFR on Tuesday also called for "the decriminalization of libel as has been the trend in democratic societies, to make our press as free as our Constitution intends and protect its independence from official and other power centers."

In a separate solidarity statement, altermative news network AlterMidya also made the same call, saying "the country should observe international human rights standards that do not advocate imprisonment as punishment for defamation."

AlterMidya pointed out that libel has been considered excessive, adding that "as seen in each Philippine administration, even in colonial times, libel has been used to relinquish accountability and punish the press who report on wrongdoings."

"It goes against our right to a free press and free expression, and by extension, to our fundamental democratic rights," it also said.

FOCAP also renewed its call for the decriminalization of libel which "has been used and abused by powerful individuals in government and beyond as a weapon against independent and factual journalism they deem critical of them and their interests." 

Aside from FOCAP, the Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines, the Cebu Citizens-Press Council and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines have called the libel cases attempts to intimidate the press.

The groups have stressed that Cusi is a public figure, the Malampaya deal is imbued with public interest and that journalists only reported on the allegations surrounding it.

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