MANILA, Philippines – Philippine Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi’s libel complaints against seven news organizations is an “embarrassment” for the country and must be dismissed by the courts, said the international legal team of Rappler CEO and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa.
“The case is an embarrassment for the Philippines just days before Maria Ressa will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for courageous journalism in defiance of the government’s crackdown. And it is a reminder that the Philippines should take anachronistic criminal libel laws off its books,” lawyer Amal Clooney said in a press statement on Wednesday, December 8.
Ressa is set to receive the Nobel Peace Prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov on Friday, December 10, in Oslo, Norway.
Rappler is one of the seven media groups sued by Cusi, a member of President Rodrigo Duterte’s Cabinet.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, another member of Ressa’s legal team, said Cusi’s libel complaints are further proof of the repressive environment for journalists in the Philippines as they report on matters of public interest and government accountability.
“But in the immediate lead-up to the Nobel Ceremony, the Duterte administration has proven just how dangerous this job is, bringing yet another baseless libel complaint against Ms. Ressa and journalists across the
Philippines, threatening them with criminalization and imprisonment,” said Gallagher.
The subject of the libel complaint is a Rappler report on a graft complaint filed by two US-based Filipino lawyers before the Office of the Ombudsman, in relation to his department’s approval of a buy-out of Malampaya shares by a subsidiary of Davao businessman and Duterte friend Dennis Uy.
Aside from Rappler, Cusi filed libel complaints over the same report against reporters, editors, and executives of ABS-CBN, BusinessWorld, Philstar, Manila Bulletin, GMA News Online and BusinessMirror.
Cusi claims that just by reporting on the graft complaint, a publicly-available and official document, the news organizations were accusing him of graft.
Ressa’s lawyers pointed out that Rappler’s article cited official sources, included both an official response from the energy department and Cusi himself, and mentioned Senate panel findings on possible irregularities in the transaction.
“This is undoubtedly reporting in the public interest on a matter of profound national concern. We urge the Philippine prosecutors and courts to throw out these and other unfounded charges against Ms. Ressa,” said Gallagher.
For decades, media groups and press freedom advocates have called for the decriminalization of libel. Philippine laws still allow journalists to be imprisoned if found guilty of libel, compared to other countries where the penalty is limited to the payment of damages. Libel as a crime becomes a potent weapon to harass journalists and media organizations, even if their reportage is on matters of public interest.
The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) has said this stifles critical news reportage even at a time when good journalism is needed to hold the powerful accountable for abuse or negligence.
“The UN Human Rights Council has pointed out that the criminal libel law in the Philippines is excessive and is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said NUJP. – Rappler.com