The Philippine press is often characterized as belligerent, rowdy, rambunctious, and noisy. Possibly it would not be called such if not urged. The freedom the press generally enjoys in a democratic setting today gives it a requisite for more responsibility.
Conversely, some government officials and persons exemplified with disagreeable images could easily threaten the press by filing suits according to the libel law. On March 14, Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco sued the editor of an online news agency of libel for an article that allegedly “portrayed him as an unethical person without delicadeza who has wantonly violated the Code of Judicial Conduct and existing laws.” In the news article, it said Velasco allegedly agreed with the majority of the SC justices to allow appointive officials to stay in their posts even after the filing of their candidacy for the benefit of his son, when the law prohibits them to do so.
Velasco is among the government officials who use the libel law to curb journalists of their freedom for being ‘irresponsible’. However it is imperative for a journalist to work under ethical standards and responsibilities arranged set by the media agency he/she belongs. There have been many journalists acquitted of libel. They are acquitted either through paying huge amounts of penalty, by satisfying the aggrieved party through an apology, or if the complainant is incapable of proving the defendant guilty.
Several house bills on decriminalizing libel have been passed but are still pending. We are in favor of decriminalizing libel. Rather than saying this is for the protection of journalists against the cases, it is more rightful to say this is to maintain press freedom, and to still enable press to work as watchdogs. We are in favor to decriminalize libel since officials continue to unjustly use the law to threaten the press. The criminalizing of libel law itself is not a total nuisance if complainants understand well the functions of the press. An amendment would do well. Nevertheless, we look at the present treatment to the libel law.
How the law is treated by complainants produces a ‘chilling effect’ upon the media. When libel law is sued to a journalist, he/she automatically is guilty. He only gets acquitted if proven innocent. (Refer to article on definition of libel) Some definitions in the Philippine libel law are vague and ridiculous, e.g. malice in law.
Velasco after filing the case asked for P1 million as payment for the damages. This is another loophole. The libel law does not say anything on penalties. Some journalists cannot afford to pay for legal representation – one point gained by the aggrieved party. To be acquitted of libel, no matter how verified the information in the article is, some journalists have no option but to pay an amount.
We are not speaking to merely put an end. As far as media ethics are concerned, decriminalizing libel would not necessarily entitle the press to say whatever they want. The members of the Philippine press must still adhere to creeds, standards, and responsibilities. They wouldn’t harm a public official to satisfy them personally; for in the first place, they entered the profession not for this purpose.
Filipinos are image builders and preservers. Apparently, the reasons of public officials for suing libel are the same – the journalist has besmirching their images. Likewise, a journalist too holds an image. It only requires both parties a matter of respect for the duties of each.