Cagayan de Oro City

Local politicians take lead in filing libel cases against journalists – NUJP study

Cong Corrales

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Local politicians take lead in filing libel cases against journalists – NUJP study

MONUMENT IN CAGAYAN DE ORO. The Press Freedom Monument near the Cagayan de Oro Press Club Building on Don Apolinar Velez Street, Cagayan de Oro.

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The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines monitors a rising use of strategic lawsuits against media workers

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – A study commissioned by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) has shown that local politicians are at the forefront when it comes to filing criminal cases of libel and cyber libel against journalists in the country.

The study, State of Legal Safety of Filipino Journalists, found that local politicians accounted for 61% of the cases monitored during the study’s timeline. 

Among these cases, 11 involved mayors, seven involved governors, three involved congressional representatives, two involved barangay chairpersons, and one involved a provincial board member. 

Apart from local politicians, the study identified other groups and individuals involved in filing criminal complaints against journalists. Government offices accounted for 12.8% of the cases, followed by private individuals at 15.4%, police officers at 7.7%, and religious groups at 2.6%. 

These findings shed light on the role played by local politicians in targeting journalists through the legal system and also showed the diverse sources of legal challenges faced by media practitioners in the country.

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The study was based on NUJP monitoring of at least 50 Filipino journalists who are facing libel and cyber libel cases from June 2016 to March 2023. 

It was released under the Initiative for Media Freedom, a five-year program implemented by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

On Saturday, June 10, one of the study’s researchers, Paul Nicholas Soriano, presented the study to a group of Mindanao-based media workers in Cagayan de Oro City as part of NUJP’s media and welfare knowledge-sharing among journalists and lawyers, a gathering organized in partnership with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and Internews.

Soriano said they have monitored a rising use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) against journalists.

The NUJP has identified 15 of these cases for review with its partner lawyer groups.

“Of the 15, eight cases are cyber libel, and two others are ordinary libel,” Soriano said, reading from the study.

He said five of these 10 cyber libel and ordinary libel cases have already been dismissed, while the other five are still ongoing.

As the number of criminal cases against journalists continues to rise, a concerning trend has emerged: journalists face increasing difficulties in obtaining legal representation. 

Despite the mounting legal challenges they encounter, many journalists find it increasingly challenging to access the legal support necessary to defend themselves. Such disparity made the pressing need for improved access to legal protection and resources for Filipino journalists in the face of criminal charges more pronounced.

Charlie Saceda, Internews program officer, said the knowledge-sharing sessions between journalists and lawyers are designed to better understand the local nuances of the weaponization of the law against journalists and how lawyers can help.

“The program is borne out of the struggling economic welfare of journalists and community news organizations that make them vulnerable to legal attacks,” said Saceda.

NUJP legal consultant Floyd Tiongson pointed out that the harassment cases stifle critical reporting on organized crime and political corruption.

“At least 66 criminal cases have been filed against journalists from 2016 until March 2023,” Tiongson said.

He said they have monitored 48 red-tagging incidents in that same period. Metro Manila chalked up 32 red-tagging incidents, eight in Luzon, one in the Visayas, and seven in Mindanao.

Lawyer Jocelyn Clemente, the chairperson of the IBP’s Committee on Press Freedom, said the legal fees explain the financial challenges faced by many community journalists seeking legal representation in courts.

Based on the 2020 rates, the acceptance fee for cases brought before a Municipal Trial Court ranged from P30,000 to P35,000, while the appearance fee for the lawyer was set at P2,500, she said.

For cases brought before the Regional Trial Court, the acceptance fee increased to P50,000, further escalating to P75,000 at the Court of Appeals (CA), and reaching P100,000 before the Supreme Court.

Journalists said the figures make it crucial to address the financial barriers that hinder community journalists from accessing the legal support they require.

“These cyber libel cases could go on for at least seven years,” Clemente said.

For her part, Cagayan de Oro assistant city prosecutor Monique Cajardo cited a Department of Justice (DOJ) order, which changed the department’s preliminary inquest from a mere “probable cause” to “reasonable certainty.”

Cajardo said the DOJ Order No. 20 helped unclog the cases filed before the prosecution offices.

“It helped us a lot since we are the ones who will be prosecuting these cases,” she said.

Lawyer Roschelle Dagaraga, a representative of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in Northern Mindanao, said that they would like to help actively defend the rights of community journalists.
“Although it is still in the ‘infancy’ period, the 6th Commission plans to join active litigation of cases,” Dagaraga said. –

Cong Corrales is an Aries Rufo Journalism fellow.

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