Failed expectations, restrictive laws

 [Philippines country report for Working within bounds: Southeast Asia’s Press Freedom Challenges for 2013. Original/print title: Failed expectations, restrictive laws in Philippines.]

There were some bright spots in the problematic Philippine campaign for media freedom and free expression in 2012. Among these were the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s (UNHRC) declaration that criminal libel is “incompatible” with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the live media coverage of the impeachment trial of then Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona; the establishment of new multimedia companies; improvements in the coverage of natural disasters; and the early preparations for the coverage of the May 2013 senatorial, party-list and local elections. The implementation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act 10175) was also stopped by the Supreme Court. But these were practically eclipsed by the continuing killing of journalists, the persistence of impunity, and the passage of restrictive laws including RA 10175.

Limiting free expression on the Net

In its attempt to make the Philippines “more investor-friendly” particularly to information and communication technology (ICT) and business process outsourcing (BPO) companies, the Philippine Congress ratified two laws restrictive of free expression on and off the Internet.

The Philippine Congress approved both the Data Privacy Act1 and the Cybercrime Prevention Act2 with such speed—and without public consultations—that members of the media were caught unaware until both were signed into law by President Benigno Aquino III in August and September 2012, respectively.

The Data Privacy Act (RA 10173) empowers the government to monitor the processing of personal information in all forms and media of communication, to halt the process in the name of privacy and national security, and to penalize violators, including private entities, government officials and agencies as well as the media, for obtaining, or causing the release or publication of,  “personal information”.

Though the section which penalizes journalists and media organizations was removed in its final version, the Data Privacy Act could hinder the gathering of information by persons whose doing so may have an impact on public matters. The law could therefore be used against anyone who releases information of a “personal” nature about government officials and other public servants, whose personal lives may have a bearing on their performance of their duties.

During a meeting of media and journalists’ groups on 13 June 2012, Rep. Roman Romulo, author of the Data Privacy Act in the House of Representatives said that possible investors from the business process outsourcing (BPO) sectors had raised concerns about the lack of data communication-digital security infrastructure and regulations in the Philippines. Thus, the introduction and eventual passage of the Data Privacy Act.

A few months after, and a month after President Aquino signed the Data Privacy Act into law, Malacañang announced its ratification of the Cybercrime Prevention Act which, to the shock of even some senators and congressmen, adopts the 82-year old libel law in the Revised Penal Code (RPC) almost wholesale except for the penalties.

A GMA News Online report quoted the president of the Business Processing Association of the Philippines as saying that “The Cybercrime Prevention Act will help sustain and enhance investor confidence and strengthen our position as one of the world’s top locations for high-value IT-BPO services.”

The implementation of the Act has been halted by a temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court in response to 15 petitions for certiorari and prohibition filed by various individuals and groups. (More information on the cybercrime law here.)

Still No FOI

The Philippine legislators, however, continued to ignore proposed laws which, if passed, could have strengthened the power of the people to hold government accountable, and complemented President Benigno Aquino III’s good governance and anti-corruption campaign for a “Matuwid na Daan (Straight and Narrow Path)”.

The likelihood of having a freedom of information (FOI) law passed under the Aquino government dimmed further in 2012.  The 15th Congress of the Philippines adjourned in February 2013 with the Senate passing its own version of the FOI, and the House of Representatives just barely starting plenary discussions.  Under Congressional rules, FOI advocates and supportive congressmen—if reelected in the May elections—will have to re-file the FOI bill in the 16th Congress.

Impunity

There was little to be thankful about in the decrease of the number of journalists and media workers killed in the line of duty in 2012. Nothing has changed in the status of the cases against those accused of killing of journalists/media workers. The number of convictions remains at 10 since Benigno Aquino III became President in 2010.

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  • Ampatuan Massacre Trial

Problems persisted in the trial of the suspected planners and perpetrators of the 23 November 2009 Ampatuan Massacre and other media-related killings. Another witness in the Massacre was killed.

A Quezon city Regional Trial Court (RTC) is still hearing the bail petitions of 58 of the 190 accused perpetrators, including five primary accused who are all from the Ampatuans political clan. A positive development was the arraignment of Zaldy Ampatuan in December 2012, who pleaded “not guilty” to 57 counts of murder. But the court had yet to consolidate the 58th case—that of Reynaldo Momay—with the first 57 cases. (More information can be accessed here)

  • Gerry Ortega

The case against those accused of the murder of broadcaster and environmentalist Gerardo Ortega is now facing another legal obstacle.

The Court of Appeals declared on 23 November that the Justice secretary had erred in ordering a re-investigation of the alleged involvement of former Palawan provincial governor Mario Joel Reyes, his brother Coron town mayor Mario Reyes Jr., and three others in the Ortega slay.

Former Governor Joel Reyes allegedly masterminded the killing of Ortega. The Reyes brothers, a former provincial administrator, and two security personnel are facing murder charges together with the hired gunmen at the RTC in Palawan.

  • Layao case in court

Of the four 2012 killings, only the case of Aldion Layao had reached the court. Two unidentified men riding in tandem on a motorcycle attacked Layao, who was driving home with his cousin and nephew last April 8. The alleged gunman, former village security volunteer Petronilo Demicillo, has been charged at the Davao City RTC. The speedy filing of Layao’s case was partly due to his political connections and his widow’s unrelenting effort to seek evidence and testimony to support the prosecution.

Other cases remained at the investigation level. Others killed in 2012 were Rommel Palma (dxMC – Bombo Radyo Koronadal, April 30, 2012); Nestor Libaton (dxHM, Davao Oriental, May 8, 2012); and Julius Cauzo (Nueva Ecija, 2012). Palma was reporting on illegal mining activities; Libaton’s murder was allegedly connected to illegal logging; Cauzo was criticizing the campaign against the promotion of Cabanatuan as a highly-urbanized city.

Increasing attacks

Also worrisome was the continuing increase in attacks and threats on journalists and media workers, especially in the provinces. CMFR recorded a total of 32 such work-related incidents in 2012 (see graphs below).

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Among these attacks were six attempted murders of journalists. The first reported case was that of Manila-based The Daily Tribune reporter Fernan Angeles. Angeles covered the Malacañang beat at the time of the incident. The alleged motive was drug dealers’ anger at his previous reports on the illegal drug trade in Pasig and nearby provinces.

Unidentified men mauled and shot Angeles near his home in Pasig City on 11 March. A case has been filed against some suspects. This incident is the second work-related case in the capital under the Aquino presidency, afterbroadcast journalist Marlina “Len” Flores Sumera was shot and killedon 24 March 2011.  Most of the journalists and media workers killed in the Philippines were from the provincial press.

Even the victims’ loved ones were put in danger for actively seeking  justice for their slain kin. In November, unidentified men tried to locate the mother of an Ampatuan victim. Earlier this year, the media also received reports about an assasination plot against the widow of slain broadcaster Dennis Cuesta and two others.

Victories

A Makati court convicted the gunman in the March 2009 shooting of former chief of reporters and anchor for dxCC-Radio Mindanao Network (RMN) Nilo Labares. However, gunman Bernardo Aguilar had jumped bail and is allegedly freely roaming the city.

Last June 2012, a Makati RTC branch sentenced Aguilar to a maximum of 12 years imprisonment. The court also ordered Aguilar to pay Labares PHP 255,006 (approximately USD 6, 061) in actual damages and PHP 20, 000 (approximately USD 475) in temperate damages.

Another “victory” was the 2012 recommendation by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) to decriminalize the Philippines libel law, during the review of the government’s fourth report to the Committee.

UNHRC reiterated its position that criminal defamation is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The UNHRC said the penalty of imprisonment is too “excessive”.

However, the government seemed not to have even considered human rights standard when it put together and passed the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which raises the penalty for criminal libel. Neither have government officials who have filed libel charges under the Revised Penal Code against provincial journalists considered, or perhaps did not know about, the UNHRC General Comment No. 34.

The UNHRC recommendation was by far the most significant development in the Philippine campaign to decriminalize libel.

The recommendation follows up on an earlier view in October 2011 on a communication filed by broadcaster Alexander Adonis, which found the rights of Adonis were violated when he was tried and jailed for criminal libel. The UNHRC view on the Adonis case gave the Philippine government 180 days to report on what it had done to remedy the situation.

However, these “victories” remained victories on paper. Media groups had yet to hear from Malacañang about its actions in response to the UNHRC’s 2011 view on Adonis and the 2012 recommendation. They were also waiting for the President to act on several suggestions on how to speed up the investigation and prosecution of killings and other attacks on the press. The Executive had formed a Multi-agency Human Rights superbody but media groups had yet to hear what the superbody had done in 2012 to address the continuing killing of journalists.

[Note: Data from Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility]