Cebu press council joins clamor vs libel raps filed by Cusi, Uy

Cebu press council joins clamor vs libel raps filed by Cusi, Uy
In this 2019 file photo, members of the Cebu media gather for the opening program of the 27th Cebu Press Freedom Week at the Capitol Social Hall in Cebu City.
The Freeman / Aldo Nelbert Banaynal, file

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 8:34 a.m., December 6) — The Cebu Citizens-Press Council, which is composed of representatives of the media and of civil society, on Sunday joined the clamor against libel complaints that Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi and businessman Dennis Uy filed against journalists and executives of seven news outlets over reports on a graft complaint.

The lawsuit against the reporters, editors and executives of news organizations ABS-CBN, Business Mirror, BusinessWorld, GMA News Online, Manila Bulletin, Philstar.com, and Rappler carries a P200 million demand for damages. 

In a statement sent to media Sunday afternoon, Cebu Citizens-Press Council executive director Pachico Seares pointed out Cusi's standing as a government figure who "is expected to respond to adverse news and comment with explanation and correction, if indeed some error is committed." 

"He must recognize that he is a public figure (so is Uy because of his high-profile involvement in major public issues), the subject is of public interest and covered by privileged communication and thus is not presumed to be malicious."

Earlier Sunday, the Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines called the libel suits "an assault to press freedom" that sends "a chilling effect as this clearly signals that the media would incur the ire of government officials and businessmen even if they do their best to ensure that their stories are factual, accurate and objective." 

EJAP added that the sale of shares in the Malampaya gas project "is of great public concern given that the asset involved is crucial to the country's energy security, thus deserving scrutiny from media without undue interference or threats."  

The CCPC in its statement Sunday also argued that "the news reports were not concocted or distorted" since they were based on a public document filed with the Office of the Ombudsman, a press conference, and a press release. 

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines over the weekend pointed out that journalists merely reported on the graft complaint lodged against Cusi and Uy and did not make any accusations of corruption themselves.

Press freedom and freedom of expression advocates have long called for the decriminalization of libel and cyber libel, which the UN Human Rights Council has pointed out is excessive and is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

"That seven news media outlets reported it indicates [the] absence of malice and the 17 respondents Cusi has dragged to court are just doing their job," Seares said in his statement Sunday. "If Cusi didn’t know basic journalism and constitutional protection of free press and free speech, his publicists and lawyers do."

The CCPC wrote in a declaration earlier in November that "repression of media can be nakedly illegal or coated with the color of law, imposed in one fell swoop or in a series of random or calculated assaults."

Opposition coalition backs media

In a statement Sunday, opposition coalition 1Sambayan — a coalition that supports Vice President Leni Robredo's candidacy for president — said it stands behind the journalists named in the complaints "and the constitutionally guaranteed mandate of the media to provide information to the general public, as well as with the protection of our civil liberties foremost of which is the freedom of speech and of the press."

The coalition called the complaints baseless and unnecessary and said it "opposes any action to suppress the freedom of the press."

The Palace has often pointed out that President Rodrigo Duterte has not filed any libel cases against journalists. This fact has often been raised as proof that press freedom in the Philippines is "alive and well".

Maria Ressa, CEO of news website Rappler, is among the awardees of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the adverse conditons that journalists in the Philippines and around the world work in. — Franco Luna with a report from Xave Gregorio, with a report from The STAR/Marc Jayson Cayabyab

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