cyber libel in the Philippines

After cyber libel conviction, Igorot activist asks: Is telling the truth a crime?

Sherwin de Vera
After cyber libel conviction, Igorot activist asks: Is telling the truth a crime?

FREEDOM FIGHTER. Activist Sarah Dekdeken is recognized as one of the Women of Courage by the Cordillera Women's Education Action Research Center and Women Working for Justice and Peace Network in the Cordillera on December 12, 2021.

Cordillera Peoples Alliance

The Cordillera Peoples Alliance says Sarah Dekdeken's cyber libel conviction is 'an attack on truth'

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – “Is truth-speaking now a crime?” was the reaction of Sarah “Bestang” Dekdeken, secretary-general of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA), following her conviction for cyber libel by a Baguio Regional Trial Court on Thursday, December 1.

“If speaking truth to power is a crime, [then it is] indicative of what democracy we now have,” the CPA secretary-general said in an online interview. She said they will appeal the decision.

RTC Branch 59, the designated Cybercrime Court in the city, ruled in favor of the complaint filed by former Police Regional Office Cordillera (PROCOR) Director Brigadier General Rwin Pagkalinawan.

“The Court finds the argument of the accused to be without merit. The post made is defamatory considering that it ascribes to the complainant a vice of defect, real or imaginary, which tends to dishonor or discredit him and put him in contempt,” stated the ruling by Judge Ivan Kim Morales.

The judge slapped Dekdeken with a fine of P250,000 and was ordered to pay P15,000 in moral damages to the complainant.

The case stemmed from a press conference in January 2021 on the demolition of the Anti-Chico Dams Struggle Monument in Tinglayan, Kalinga.

The structure honors Macliing Dulag, Pedro Dungoc, Lumbaya Gayudan, and other martyrs who fought against the Marcos dictatorship’s four Chico River dam projects.

“According to residents of Butbut, it was PROCOR Director General Pagkalinawan who told them that the monument must be removed… Residents from Bugnay, where the memorial is located, said that Pagkalinawan told the police that the monument should be gone when he visits,” Dekdeken said in Filipino during the activity, which was also streamed live on CPA’s Facebook page.

The court said Dekdeken’s statement was “malicious and is sufficient to impeach the honesty, virtue, or reputation of the private complainant or to hold the private complainant up to public ridicule.”

Sharing community report

During the proceedings, Dekdeken argued that she was merely sharing a report received from the concerned community. The CPA also mentioned that they went to Bugnay again to verify the information with residents months after the press conference. She said their sources maintained the complainant made the statement.

But the court underscored that the defendant failed to prove that Pagkalinawan made the order, saying Dekdeken’s statement was “defamatory” and “discredited” the complainant.

In October 2020, the Department of Public Works and Highways-Upper Kalinga District Engineering Office (DPWH-UKDEO) issued a demolition notice to CPA for the marker. The structure came under the road-right-of-way proceedings following the recommendation from the Kalinga Police Provincial Advisory Council for its demolition.

The demolition proceedings, widely opposed by historians, academicians, and activists, were still ongoing when the demolition happened in January 2021. DPWH-UKDEO denied issuing any order.

A petition submitted by Bugnay officials urging the agency to probe the destruction of the marker also accused the police as perpetrators.

Residents of Bugnay reinstalled the monument to mark the Day of Valor in April 2021.

Lading their tribe members, Butbut’s elders and barangay officials signed a statement on April 16 reiterating that the police were to blame for the desecration.

‘Attack on truth’

In a statement, CPA called the conviction of Dekdeken “an attack on truth.”

“This libel case is an attack on truth and those who wield it to champion peoples’ political rights. It is a machination to cover up their (the police) involvement in the desecration of the Cordillera Heroes’ Monument, a symbolic structure of peoples’ triumphs over state-sponsored destructive development initiatives,” the group said.

“This court ruling borne of an unscrupulous justice system gives an impression that even truth is without potency when we hold state entities to account for their actions against the people,” CPA added.

CPA expressed concern that the decision would encourage state agents to weaponize the law against activists. The group believes the cyber libel complaint is “part of the state-sponsored attacks” against them.

“We maintain that speaking the truth is not libelous nor is it a crime; especially so if the true narrative is a revelation of state institutions’ abuse of power. This is a responsibility of every citizen in a democratic society,” the statement said.

For decades, media groups in the country have campaigned for the decriminalization of libel, citing its detrimental impact on the freedom of the press and expression. International groups like the International Federation of Journalists, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have supported the call.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2011 called the country’s libel law as “excessive.” Broadcaster turned senator Raffy Tulfo also recently backed decriminalizing libel for certain individuals. – Rappler.com

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