Libel as a ‘badge of honor’

SENTINEL - Ramon T. Tulfo - The Philippine Star

When the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) tried to prevent Maria Ressa from traveling abroad, it did a disservice to the country.

Even the Court of Appeals, which ruled that Ressa may travel, also did a disservice to the nation when it allowed her, but required a P500,000 bond and a copy of her itinerary while abroad.

If that’s not persecution of an arch critic of the current administration’s war on drugs, I don’t know what is.

How stupid could these two government entities get!

Ressa has been convicted by a Manila court for libel and her conviction is on appeal.

When a criminal case has been taken to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, the penalty is suspended; in short, the convicted person is deemed innocent until final conviction by the appellate courts.

In trying to prevent Ressa from going abroad, the OSG bolstered suspicion that Duterte’s government is harassing her and curtailing her freedom of expression.

Ressa, a recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, was invited to speaking engagements in the US.

The appellate court, on the other hand, should have done away with having her post bail and submit her itinerary. It would seem the court is complicit with the OSG in harassing Ressa.

Now, how can the Duterte government explain to the free world that Ressa is not being harassed by President Digong on account of her criticisms of the war on drugs?

Libel is not a heinous crime like murder, robbery, kidnapping, rape, embezzlement of huge funds, traffic of illegal drugs and treason.

In other countries, libel is not even a criminal offense since it is supposedly committed against the honor or reputation of an individual person or entities and not against the state.

Journalists charged with libel have incurred it with public interest in mind.

Seldom do you find hard-hitting journalists in the country who have not been charged with libel.

Libel, rightly or wrongly, is even considered by many journalists as a badge of honor.

Libel’s equivalent in the military is the purple-heart medal. A soldier who has not been wounded in combat has not earned his spurs, so to speak.

Ressa was convicted based on a complaint of a private citizen who said the news website Rappler, where she is co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO), destroyed his reputation.

Now, why would Ressa be considered a “flight risk,” or one who would not come back to face conviction, when libel is just a matter of course among crusading journalists?

This is not to say that Ressa would be losing prestige and reputation as CEO of the country’s No. 1 news website if she did not return.

I remember Frank Chavez, who was solicitor general at the time, when I was convicted by a Manila court for libel in the early 1990s.

Instead of defending the position of the government, which is the job of the OSG, Chavez even sided with this columnist who went to the Court of Appeals.

Chavez said that to convict me would have a chilling effect on other journalists and be a blow to press freedom.

I’ve had so many libel cases – I’ve lost count – but I have not been prevented from going out of the country.

Anyway, I should not be prevented from leaving the country despite all the libel cases against me, because I consider libel as part of the hazards of my profession.

I would be lying to my readers, particularly my critics, if I said that I bask in the glory of having so many libel suits in my name.

The joke among my colleagues in the profession is that I’m the “best dressed man” in the whole country because of my libel suits.

I recall the time I was jailed by a judge in Dinalupihan, Bataan for alleged contempt of court in the late 1980s.

The good judge had demanded from me the source of an article in my Inquirer column about a murder suspect being allowed to go out of jail once in a while. The judge was trying the suspect’s case.

When I refused to give him the source of information, the judge ordered me detained for two weeks at the Bataan Provincial Jail in the capital, Balanga town.

I became a celebrity of sorts because of the judge’s rash decision.

I was laughing at the magistrate who probably was sleeping during his law classes or absent when the Sotto Law was discussed.

Under the Sotto Law, so-called because it was authored by Sen. Vicente Sotto I – yes, he’s the grandfather and namesake of Senate President and vice-presidential candidate Tito Sotto – journalists cannot be compelled by the courts and other government agencies to reveal their sources of information unless the security of the state is at stake.

The Court of Appeals at the time ordered my release from jail a week later and reprimanded the Bataan judge.

True to form, then solicitor general Frank Chavez didn’t defend the judge’s decision because he was out of line.

That was not the first time I was jailed for refusing to reveal my source to a court judge.

Before I was detained in Bataan, an Olongapo City judge also sent me to jail for the same reason.

The Olongapo City judge, a woman, felt alluded to when I wrote in my Inquirer column that a “lady judge” was always seen inside the then Subic Naval Base playing the slot machines in one of the base’s cafeterias.

But in the Olongapo case, the judge saw the folly of her decision and ordered me promptly released from the city jail after an hour.

Journalists worth their salt will always stand their ground in defense of their constitutional right to expose the ills and warts of society.

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