MANILA, Philippines – Rappler has submitted counter-affidavits to the Office of the City Prosecutor in Davao City denying accusations of cyber libel against the online media organization and its journalists made by members of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ (KOJC) headed by preacher Apollo Quiboloy.
Rappler Regional head Inday Espina-Varona, Mindanao bureau coordinator Herbie Gomez, former researcher Vernise Tantuco, and Ateneo de Manila University professor and sociologist of religion Jayeel Cornelio filed their counter-affidavits or replies to the complaints on Tuesday, March 22. This was done through their counsels led by Ateneo de Davao Law School Dean Manny Quibod, who is regional coordinator of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) in Davao.
Rappler answered the complaints after it was granted an extension it had requested due to the time needed to secure counsel in Davao and send documents for the filing of counter-affidavits.
Complaints about violation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 were filed by Quiboloy’s coordinators Aubrey Madrid Pelera and Rose Gorgoio Corda, and KOJC ministers Fahad Murphy Ocampo Sangkula and Elias Quinlog Bolanio Jr. on various dates last January and February 2022. None of them were mentioned in Rappler’s series of exclusive investigative reports, news stories, videos, and editorial about Quiboloy and his KOJC.
KOJC members have filed a total of 21 complaints against Rappler, several of which included three women who were also interviewed for the stories and videos published on the news website starting December 2021. The women also facing cyber libel complaints are former KOJC members Arlene Caminong-Stone, Faith Killion, and Reynita Fernandez.
Stone, Killion, and Fernandez told Rappler of their personal experiences as members of the group of Quiboloy, who is wanted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation “for his alleged participation in a labor trafficking scheme” that brought members to America through “fraudulently obtained visas.” US authorities said members were also forced to solicit donations for a bogus charity, whose funds were used to finance church operations and the lavish lifestyle of its leaders.
The FBI said Quiboloy’s followers who excelled in the solicitations were then allegedly forced to enter into sham marriages or obtain fraudulent student visas so they could continue with their fund-raising activities.
The narratives of Stone, Killion, and Fernandez were consistent with allegations in an indictment unsealed in November 2021 by a federal grand jury in the US District Court for the Central District of California, Santa Ana, California.
A journalist’s job
In nearly identical complaints, Pelera, Corda, Sangkula, and Bolanio accused the respondents of “attacking, discrediting, maligning, and destroying” the name of their religious leader, church, and ministry in Rappler’s stories and other content.
The complainants said that the reports saw their church become a “laughing stock” while some of its “members, new converts, and sympathizers” have questioned them about accusations made against the group and its leader.
Former Supreme Court Spokesperson and FLAG’s Ted Te, who coordinates the case from Manila, where Rappler is based, said on Monday, March 28, there was no libel committed because journalists were just doing their job.
“The articles are not libelous, not defamatory. They were done based on interviews and the articles were written based on the view of Jayeel [Cornelio] and first person accounts of the three witnesses who previously came from the church of Mr. Quiboloy,” he said.
Te continued: “That is essentially what a journalist does so there is nothing defamatory there.”
The four complainants said their reputations as leaders and members in KOJC were “gravely besmirched,” and their work belittled and discredited.
“As far as Rappler is concerned and as far the individual journalists are concerned, the freedom of expression is protected,” Te said. Cornelio, who gave his expert opinion as an academic in one of the Rappler Talk interviews, is also protected, Te added.
More complaints filed
Alongside these, KOJC coordinator Sistine Grace Cardona filed a similar complaint in Panabo City in January 2022. Rappler has filed a motion for extension to submit its counter-affidavits.
On Friday, March 25, Rappler received another eight complaints filed by KOJC coordinator Gemma Complete Sanchez. One of such complaints was against Gomez, Varona, Tantuco, and Rappler senior reporter Pia Ranada. Sanchez filed all eight complaints in General Santos City.
Like earlier complainants, Cardona and Sanchez were not mentioned in Rappler’s investigative series, news stories, videos, and editorial about Quiboloy and his KOJC.
“What is clear is that other people cannot claim the damage to reputation arising from libel because the libel supposedly arises out of defamed reputation or character and that’s personal,” Te said.
He added, “The only person who can actually file these suits is Mr. Quiboloy himself. No other person can because the articles do not refer to any person.” – Rappler.com