Senate starts hearings on bills to decriminalize libel

By Marvin Sy, The Philippine Star

Posted at Nov 07 2012 01:16 AM | Updated as of Nov 07 2012 09:47 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The Senate has started hearings on the proposed bills seeking to decriminalize libel.

Based on the response from lawyers and other affected groups, there was unanimous support for its passage into law.

The decriminalization of libel bills were taken up together with the proposed right of reply bill, which did not get the same positive treatment by the panelists.

A total of seven bills were filed for the purpose of decriminalizing libel and after hearing the sentiments of the panelists during yesterday’s hearing, Senate committee on public information and mass media chairman Gregorio Honasan said he would come up with a compromise version that would contain the key provisions of the different bills.

Honasan noted the general sentiment of the resource persons was the decriminalization of libel and the right of reply bills should be taken up separately, not as a single bill even though they are correlated.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, in a letter addressed to Honasan, commented on the various bills filed on the decriminalization of libel, which deal with the subject matter in two different ways.

One of the bills considered, Senate Bill 2053, proposes to abolish the penalty of imprisonment in libel cases but maintains fines should still be imposed.

De Lima said this would make the term “decriminalize” a misnomer since the offense is still covered under the Revised Penal Code.

“To simplify the proceeding, why not make the filing of the criminal action as being deemed to necessarily carry with it the filing of such civil action and no right to reserve the filing of such civil action separately from the criminal action will be recognized,” De Lima said in her letter.

For the five other bills – namely Senate Bills 2162, 3303, 3244, 3298 and 2668 – De Lima noted they were all meant to completely repeal the provisions on libel in the Revised Penal Code.

De Lima said those bills were incomplete in the sense that they did not contain a provision on pending cases or those filed before the law takes effect.

University of the Philippines College of Law professor Theodore Te pointed out the concern raised by De Lima was addressed in the seventh bill, Senate Bill 3294 filed by Sen. Loren Legarda.

Legarda’s proposal provides for the dismissal of all pending cases.

For those already convicted, the bill calls for their immediate release.

Te said the best way to proceed with the proposed decriminalization of libel would be to abolish the entire chapter in the Revised Penal Code.

Another UP law professor, Harry Roque, argued the existence of criminal libel law in the country is unconstitutional because it violates the Bill of Rights and a breach on the country’s obligation to the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Journalists, who are the target of most of the libel cases, were represented by the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the National Press Club, all of which aired their support for the decriminalization of libel.

As far as the right of reply bill is concerned, Roque and Te both cited a case decided in the US, which determined that any attempt by the government to legislate the right to reply is also an affront on freedom of the press.

“If only because it is the right and discretion of the editors to determine what will see print or broadcast, any attempt by the government to interfere with this discretion is in fact a violation of this freedom,” Roque said.

Integrated Bar of the Philippines national executive director Jose Cabrera said the provisions contained in the right to reply bill is one form of curtailment of the right of the press.

De Lima said the said right of reply bill as contained in Senate Bill 76 filed by Sen. Manuel Villar Jr. is misleading because the right of an individual to reply or defend himself is already guaranteed under the Constitution.

“If the bill intends to compel the different mass media outfits, whether television, radio or print media, to make or publish the view of the person victimized by false accusations, etcetera, in the event that the victim elects that manner of defending or explaining himself, then this should be made clear in the title and body of the bill,” De Lima explained.

Victoria Garcia, representing the dean of the University of Santo Tomas College of Law, suggested any person availing of the right of reply in the case of reports by print or broadcast media should pay the appropriate rates charged by the media outlets.

KBP chairman Herman Basbaño said there is no need to pass a right of reply law since all media outlets are bound by their respective code of ethics and usually have a resident ombudsman taking care of complaints.