Journalist Frank Cimatu convicted of cyber libel over FB post vs ex-agri chief

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 13 2022 02:56 PM | Updated as of Dec 13 2022 04:12 PM

MANILA (UPDATED) — A Quezon City court convicted Baguio journalist Frank Cimatu for cyber libel over his 2017 Facebook post about then Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol. 

In a decision dated Dec. 12, Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 93 Acting Presiding Judge Evangeline Cabochan-Santos sentenced Cimatu to up to 5 years, 5 months and 11 days in prison and ordered him to pay Piñol P300,000 in moral damages.

In his Facebook post on Sept. 24, 2017, Cimatu said: "Agri Sec got rich by 21 M in 6 months. Bird flu pa more."

The court said the post was defamatory because it imputed a crime, making it appear that Piñol committed was involved in corruption.

“A cursory reading of the Facebook post would show the intention of the writer, herein accused Cimatu, to injure the reputation, credit and virtue of Piñol and expose him to public hatred, discredit, contempt and ridicule,” the court said.

“Accused made it appear that during the bird flu outbreak in the Philippines, Piñol, who, at the time the Facebook post was published is the Secretary of DAR, committed corrupt acts and gained Twenty-One Million Pesos (P21,000,000.00) in six (6) months,” it added.

Piñol was secretary of Agriculture from 2016 to 2019. He was not appointed to the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), as the court said.

According to the court, Cimatu made the Facebook post with actual malice or with “reckless disregard of whether his imputation is true or not,” a key element in libel cases involving government officials.

Piñol was able to prove in court that his personal net worth increased during the 7 years that he was out of government service — from 2009 to 2016. 

Journalist Frank Cimatu convicted of cyber libel 1
Journalist Frank Cimatu convicted of cyber libel 2

Court decision on cyber libel case filed by ex-agriculture chief Manny Piñol against journalist Franck Cimatu

Court decision on cyber libel case filed by ex-agriculture chief Manny Piñol against journalist Franck Cimatu

In contrast, the court said Cimatu claimed he made the post in his personal capacity, “after having read a similar post concerning the bird flu outbreak including complainant’s increase of net worth” but supposedly didn’t show evidence to prove the post he was referring to.

“Accused failed to show any proof to establish that his post was done in good faith, this notwithstanding, being afforded with all the opportunity to ventilate his defenses and pieces of evidence in the present action,” it ruled.

The court also noted that despite Piñol’s comments on Cimatu’s post, the veteran journalist supposedly did not relent in his actions and continued “defaming” the former official.

The court rejected Cimatu's defense that his Facebook post was intended to be seen only by friends and that he subsequently made it private. 

It found that the statement was originally posted publicly and he stipulated during the pre-trial conference that the post was viewable by the public.

The court also noted that Piñol’s identity as agriculture secretary was accepted by the parties and third parties were able to identify him as the subject of Cimatu's post. 


The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) condemned Cimatu's conviction, saying it saw "no malice" in his 2017 Facebook post.

The NUJP claims Piñol himself posted threats and derogatory remarks in the comment section.

It expressed support for Cimatu's plan to appeal the court's verdict.

In libel cases, malice is presumed in every defamatory statement involving a private person, while actual malice must be proven for public figures.

"With due respect to the local court's decision, NUJP maintains that the right to free expression and press freedom is paramount especially when exercised in relation to public officials," it said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Frank Cimatu convicted of cyber libel 2

"A powerful politician such as Piñol crying foul over a Facebook post of a community journalist is ironic in a supposed democratic country," the group said.

Press freedom advocates have long called for the decriminalization of libel, saying it is being used to stifle the media.

"NUJP reiterates its position that libel laws should be decriminalized as these are not compatible with the Bill of Rights stated in the PH Constitution and with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of which the PH is a state party," the NUJP said.

The group added that penalties for cyber libel are stiffer compared to ordinary libel. 

"This makes cyber libel a Damocles' sword hanging above our head, and reinforces the chilling effect that Filipino journalists need to confront every day in this benighted land," it said.

The Human Rights Watch also expressed concern over the decision, which it said came a few days after activist Sarah Dekdeken of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance was also convicted of the same offense.

The group stressed the need to decriminalize libel and cyber libel, which it called an assault on democracy and free expression.


Citing Cimatu’s conviction as an example, opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros filed a bill on Tuesday to decriminalize libel.

Senate Bill 1593 seeks to repeal sections 353 to 362 on libel under the Revised Penal Code as well as section 4(c)(4) on cyber libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

Instead, it said a civil case for damages can always be filed under Article 2176 of the Civil Code. 

“Our libel laws have been weaponized to stifle very basic fundamental rights. These laws have been used to constantly attack many of our freedoms, but particularly the freedom of the press. We need to decriminalize libel if we are to truly defend press freedom,” Hontiveros said. 

The senator also cited the cyber libel conviction of Nobel laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Rey Santos in June 2020, which the CA upheld in October this year. 

Ressa and Santos have appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court but they did not release a copy of their appeal.

“These journalists have wasted years of their lives facing charges for basically doing their jobs. Gamit na gamit na ang cyber libel para patahimikin ang ating mga mamamahayag. Kung hindi natin maiwasto ito, patuloy na gagamitin ang libel para kitilin ang ating kalayaan,” Hontiveros said. 

“Trabaho ng mga reporter ang magbahagi ng mga impormasyon para sa kaalaman ng publiko. We need the press to vet information and continue to be the safekeepers of facts. Sa pagbaha ng fake news sa social media, mas lalong kailangan nating maprotektahan ang propesyon nila. If we fail to do so, if we allow our laws to punish rather than protect the press, we chip away at our Constitutional rights. This will cost us our democracy,” she added.

(Cyber libel is often used to silence journalists. If we don't correct this, libel will be used to kill our freedom. It is the job of reporters to share information to the public... As fake news floods social media, we need to protect their profession.)