Libel a harassment tool that must be decriminalized, says professor

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 17 2019 11:57 AM | Updated as of Feb 18 2019 09:56 AM

Maria Ressa, the CEO of online news platform Rappler, speaks to the media after posting bail at a Regional Trial Court in Manila, February 14, 2019. Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

MANILA - Libel has been used to "harass" journalists and should be decriminalized, a member of the academe said Sunday following the arrest of Rappler chief Maria Ressa due to a 7-year-old news article, which some press freedom advocates branded an act of "persecution."

Ressa, whose news site has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, was held in overnight detention last Wednesday over a 2012 Rappler article which its subject, businessman Wilfredo Keng, claimed was "clearly defamatory."

The arrest warrant against Ressa was served in the evening, denying her of a chance to post bail immediately, said Dr. Rachel Khan of the University of the Philippines-Diliman, College of Mass Communication.

"It shows harassment. Talagang gusto nilang mang-intimidate ng press, siguro through Maria Ressa," she told DZMM Teleradyo.

(They really want to intimidate the press, probably through Maria Ressa.)

"Libel has been used to harass journalists kaya it has always been our point na dapat i-decriminalize iyung libel," she added.

Those accused of libel would not be detained if it is deemed as a civil offense instead of a criminal act, she noted.

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The decriminalization of libel, however, requires the approval of lawmakers, some of whom have brought journalists to court for alleged defamatory reports, said Khan.

"It's a weapon for them (lawmakers) so bakit nila tatanggalin?" she said.

(Why will they remove it?)

The Rappler article cited in the complaint against Ressa claimed that Keng's luxury vehicle was used by former Chief Justice Renato Corona during the impeachment proceedings against him.

The report also said Keng had been under surveillance by National Security Council for alleged involvement in human trafficking and drug smuggling.

Keng, in a statement, said he was never investigated by any law enforcement agency, much less indicted, arrested, detained or convicted of any crime in the Philippines.

Ressa, he said, "never attempted to obtain my side on the crimes they wrongly imputed to me or to fact-check their baseless attacks against my name."

Ressa, who was named a Time Magazine "Person of the Year" in 2018 for her journalism, said the case shows "how far the government will go to try to silence a voice."

The penalty for cyber libel is imprisonment for a minimum of 4 years, 2 months and 1 day to a maximum of 8 years.

Rappler is facing a separate tax evasion case that could lead to its closure. The government has accused Rappler Holdings Corp., Ressa and the site's accountant of failing to pay taxes on 2015 bond sales that it alleged netted gains of P162.5 million.

Its incorporation certificate was also revoked last year for allegedly violating the constitutional restriction on foreign ownership of mass media.