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UN expert calls for, Makabayan bloc seeks decriminalization of libel

Kaycee Valmonte - Philstar.com
UN expert calls for, Makabayan bloc seeks decriminalization of libel
FILE PHOTO: United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan attends a press conference on findings of the investigation on the promotion and protection of the right to freedeom of opinion and expression into the case of a Russian opposition leader on March 1, 2021 in Geneva. UN human rights experts called for an international investigation into the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, as the EU agreed to sanction top Russian officials involved in his detention.
AFP / Fabrice Coffrini

MANILA, Philippines — After the Court of Appeals upheld cyber libel charges against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and its former researcher Reynaldo Santos, a United Nations special rapporteur is calling on the Marcos Jr. administration to put an end to the use of libel against journalists.

Meanwhile, lawmakers at the House of Representatives have refiled a bill seeking to amend the country’s laws to decriminalize libel. Redress for libel would still be available under the Civil Code.

"The criminalization of journalists for libel impedes public interest reporting and is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression," UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan said in a statement dated July 14

"Criminal libel law has no place in a democratic country and should be repealed."

Similar to what Ressa and Santos raised in their appeal, Khan noted that the country’s 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act has been applied retroactively since the two are in hot water over a story that was published even before the law was enacted. 

A May 2012 article was updated by Rappler in February 2014 due to a typographical error. Government prosecutors ruled that the correction was considered a republication of the story. 

The Court of Appeals this month upheld an earlier decision of a Manila court convicting both Ressa and Santos of cyber libel.

Their potential prison time was even lengthened to six years, eight months, and 20 days from the previous period of six months and a day.

READ: CA upholds Maria Ressa, ex-Rappler staff’s cyber libel conviction 

"This is yet another example of the relentless attack against Maria Ressa for daring to speak truth to power," Khan said. 

Bill refiled

Rep. France Castro (ACT Teachers Party-list), Rep. Arlene Brosas (GABRIELA Women’s Party), and Rep. Raoul Manuel (Kabataan Party-list) have filed a bill seeking to decriminalize libel through amendments in the country’s revised penal code. 

In the explanatory note of Bill No. 1769, the lawmakers noted that "the law has been increasingly used by public officials and public figures as a tool to cow and muzzle an independent press, usually to shield themselves from critical reportage and even innocent comment in their acts and decisions." 

"Instead of protecting the freedoms and rights of the people, the government uses threats and weaponizes the law to create a chilling effect in the media and the people and dissuade them from speaking out on the anti-people policies of this administration," Castro said.

Aside from Rappler’s cases, seven news organizations and their journalists were the subject of libel and cyber libel complaints by then-Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi for their reportage on the graft complaint against him related to the Malampaya gas field buyout. 

Cusi withdrew charges against journalists months after he filed complaints “in the interest of preserving what can be saved” from the supposed friendships and professional relationships he formed with respondents. 

Similar complaints filed by businessman Dennis Uy were dismissed by prosecutors.

RELATED: Dennis Uy cyber libel complaint vs Philstar.com junked 

Marcos Jr. urged to take action

Meanwhile, UN Special Rapporteur Khan also wants a reversal of the decision that blocked websites nearly 30 websites, with the UN also noting that the “authorities have provided no evidence to justify the blockage.”

Former National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. tapped the National Telecommunications Commission last month block to access to 28 websites, which included those owned by independent media organizations Bulatlat and PinoyWeekly. 

Esperon claimed these websites were affiliated with communist rebels, but he did not provide proof to back his allegations. In a press conference held last week, National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos refused to comment on Esperon's complaints as it is still "under review."

READ: With barely a month left in office, Esperon red-tags independent news sites, 'attacks press freedom' 

"I am deeply concerned by recent developments in the Philippines to silence independent and investigative journalism in the country," Khan said.

"I urge President Marcos to take this opportunity to bring an end to the crackdown on press freedom in the Philippines."  — with reports from Xave GregorioKristine Joy Patag, and Franco Luna

CYBERLIBEL

LIBEL

UNITED NATIONS

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