(Speech delivered by PPI chairman-president and Malaya publisher Amado Macasaet during a forum on decriminalizing libel and freedom of information in celebration of the World Press Freedom Day on May 4 at the De La Salle University-Manila, a program supported by the Embassy of the United States of America in Manila. The PPI position is to decriminalize libel.)
I used to think that criminal libel is a necessary evil. It is the only weapon against frequent abuses of media. Unfortunately, this weapon has been variously abused by people in power.
Nothing could be a more glaring example than the ten libel cases filed by the former first gentleman.
There were 47 respondents among us. After the complainant recovered from a near fatal illness, he moved to dismiss the libel cases, both criminal and civil against all of us.
Marites Vitug and I never had a prior discussion before we decided we would not accept the motion to dismiss. I asked my lawyer to oppose the motion. I never had the idea of filing a counter suit for damages.
One Mr. Arroyo’s lawyers told me in a chance meeting that the complainant was wondering – sometimes aloud – why I could not accept his forgiveness. I almost blew my top and told the lawyer that he had a very little understanding of the law. But he is a lawyer.
I declared that the reason there is a trial – we had four hearings in an RTC in Manila – is precisely to determine whether or not I committed a criminal libel. It is for the court to determine whether or not I committed the crime.
After less than two years, the court accepted the motion to dismiss. I would have been the first libel respondent to file an appeal against an acquittal. I heeded the advice of my lawyer that the appeal may not prosper considering the influence of the man.
That case was only the second where I am the principal respondent after almost 50 years in print media. I won the first. I did not exactly like the idea of winning the second by owing the first Gentleman the favor of forgiving me for an alleged crime that has not been determined in court.
The 10 libel cases filed against 47 of us was the worst example of how powerful people can threaten journalists with prison terms and fines we may not be able to pay in the event of final conviction.
We in the Philippine Press Institute unanimously decided to support a bill decriminalizing libel in the belief that the weapon against media abuses is variously abused. The abuse is a direct attack on freedom of the press although we admit, in all humility, that we have not always been fair either because we have not been thorough in checking our facts and verifying them with independent sources.
If we examine the events of the past, we may conclude that criminal libel cases are filed by powerful state officials, not exactly because they honestly feel maligned. The cases are filed to prevent media from further exposing their wrong doings.
We thought we would never allow this direct suppression of freedom of the press through the criminal libel law. Yet I must note that the Philippines is one of very few countries where criminal and civil libel cases are filed against media.
In a supposedly democratic but variously corrupt judiciary, malice is easier established by a judge who may have been promised a promotion by a powerful man if a respondent is convicted of criminal libel.
Libel cases may well be the result of two things: Bureaucrats of the powerful kind take to filing criminal libel to muzzle the press or we ourselves might have committed or written libelous materials. I draw comfort from the fact that the most important element of criminal libel – malice – is rarely established in court.
The courts are variously sympathetic to media in resolving libel cases. I cannot say the same of the prosecution.
Media is a powerful institution in this country. The case of Conrad Black, a former media mogul, cannot happen here. Black was allowed to live in Canada after he served a prison term in the United States. He may never been found guilty – not of libel – in the Philippines because of the fact of his being a media mogul. In that sense, media is privileged class.
It is this having privilege that might have led to irresponsible exercise of our duty as media persons. The rights of media as in all other rights are accompanied by awesome responsibilities. We might have been remiss in the latter.
That, according to many makes criminal libel a necessary evil. If it is evil, it cannot be necessary. Therefore, criminal libel must be stricken out of the statute books.
We in media, on the other hand, must exercise our freedom with a higher level of fairness and responsibility.
We support the decriminalization of libel. It does not give us any sense of comfort or pleasure seeing an irresponsible media. However, we are more scared of the fourth estate coming to terms with the state as a possible result of powerful officials threatening media with criminal libel.
A bill on the freedom of information is a redundancy in the sense that the Constitution guarantees it.
The bill is an enabling law to make enforceable the provision of the Charter.
Basically, however, the burden of exercising freedom of information is more heavy on the shoulders of the journalists than it is on government officials. That is why the journalist must be possessed with the virtue of diligence, hard work, and must know what information he is looking for so that he may understand what questions to ask that in turn will force the source to reveal the information.
Before this situation can happen, the journalist must be equipped with trust and confidence of his sources. There are state officials who would provide documents or information on matters affecting public welfare if the journalist is completely in his confidence and he happens to believe that the document or information kept secret affects public welfare.
It is not with pride that I dare say that the bulk of the present crop of younger practitioners do not develop sources, hardly, anyway. Their reliance on press statements is getting heavier and heavier. There is a growing inability among them to correctly interpret events.
This is one reason why sources in government refuse to reveal vital information. A law on freedom of information will not solve this problem.
I have yet to set the kind of journalists that force the late President Richard M. Nixon to resign two reporters from the Washington Post documented the Watergate scandal.
A law on freedom of information will not give a state official the duty to provide the journalists with documents or information particularly when in his narrow mind, they are classified as confidential.
It is my belief that no information should be classified as “strictly confidential” if it does not involve the security – not just welfare – of the state.
I must say here, though, that the journalist must respect the secrecy of information contained in a raw document about an investment agreement.
We in the Philippine Press Institute worry a lot whenever a proposal is made in Congress to protect press freedom. One of those bills, gathering dust in the bins of Congress, requires equal treatment or same prominence. This proposal invades the rights of the editor to evaluate the news in his best lights, not in the lights of a party who feels he was aggrieved by a previous story.
We feel we are well enough alone but we argue for the decriminalization the libel law precisely to remove a threat against that freedom. Criminal libel is a threat to free press.
It would be wrong for us media persons, to believe or suspect that sources in the state will deliver to us vital information in a silver platter just so it may not be said, or the source may not be accused of violating the freedom of information law.
Getting information shall always be the main concern of the journalist whether or not there is a freedom of information law.