Libel conviction raises cost of free expression in Philippines

5 June 2008
Source: CMFR

Libel conviction raises cost of free expression in Philippines

THE Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility views with alarm the conviction for libel and sentencing to a prison term as well as payment of fines of Daily Tribune publisher and editor Ninez Cacho–Olivares.

The six months to two years’ imprisonment sentence imposed by Judge Winlove Dumayas of Branch 59 of the Makati Regional Trial Court ignores a Supreme Court memorandum urging the imposition of fines rather than prison terms on journalists convicted of libel.

At the same time however, the fine of over P5 million Judge Dumayas has ordered Cacho-Olivares to pay is excessive, and underscores the truth of what CMFR has long argued: that not only libel’s being a criminal offense in the Philippines, but also the often excessive fines imposed on journalists, hamper free expression, abridge press freedom, and compromise the democratic dialogue.

Unless overturned, the conviction of Cacho-Olivares escalates the costs of free expression in the Philippines. It ironically comes at a time when the United Nations, precisely on the basis of such Supreme Court initiatives as its memorandum enjoining lower courts not to impose prison sentences in libel cases, has lauded the Philippines for its alleged commitment to human rights.

Congress must now take the necessary steps to amend the libel law.  Criminal libel has always been a threat against the free press and free expression in general.  The possibility—and, in the case of Davao journalist Alex Adonis, the reality– of imprisonment is a constraint on press reporting and fair comment. The threat of crippling fines has also had the same effect. Both will continue to threaten press freedom and free expression in the Philippines unless libel is decriminalized and a ceiling fixed on fines in libel cases.

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