The Philippine Bar Association has offered legal assistance to journalists facing libel cases filed by Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, President Rodrigo Duterte’s trusted ally.
“We extend this service in recognition of our brave journalists who have fearlessly performed their constitutional duty for years,” said Philippine Bar Association president Rico Domingo in a statement on Tuesday, December 7.
The group said the libel complaints – filed against seven news organizations, including Rappler – were “stressful and financially-draining challenges” that would introduce a “chilling effect.”
“We rely on our Press to always search for the truth. We ask our journalists to keep writing facts. But their ability to do so remains only insofar that they themselves as Free – free from fear, free from harassment. If we want them to remain ‘free,’ then we must do our part to keep them that way,” added the Philippine Bar Association, the oldest voluntary national organization of lawyers in the Philippines.
Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III said on Wednesday that he’s offering legal advice to the media groups and personalities sued by Cusi. Pimentel, incidentally, belongs to the rival faction of Cusi at PDP-Laban.
“Since I cannot appear in court or in quasi judicial offices in cases not involving myself, I am also offering my legal advice to all those media personalities sued by Sec. Cusi. We have to collectively resist any and all attempts to restrain even silence the news media organizations. By suing all of them for reporting a newsworthy event it is clear that the desired effect is to chill, even freeze, the news media reporting on the subject matter of Malampaya,” he said.
The senator added, “My offer of legal advice is extended to all Filipinos who feel oppressed by the abuse of the law or the weaponization of the law.”
Cusi is asking for P200 million in damages from each news organization and its journalists for reporting on a graft complaint that was filed against him and Duterte campaign donor Dennis Uy. Cusi claimed that the journalists, in their news reports – which was based on a press conference conducted by the lawyer of graft complainants – “publicly accused [him] of graft.” The graft case against Cusi was filed by US-based Filipino lawyers Rodel Rodis and Loida Nicolas Lewis who, as of press time, face no complaints from Cusi.
Rodis and Lewis accused Cusi of committing graft over his department’s approval of an Uy subsidirary to buy 45% operating interest in the Malampaya gas field, with another buyout of Shell’s 45% shares ongoing. Both business and legal groups have raised alarm over the buyout, citing risks of handing over a major source of power in Luzon to companies with no track record in oil exploration. The gas field is also linked to the Reed Bank in the disputed West Philippine Sea. The alleged buyout irregularity is also the subject of a Senate probe.
The case against Rappler was filed against the company, its CEO Maria Ressa, reporter Aika Rey, executive editor Glenda Gloria, and managing editor Chay Hofileña.
Cusi als 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 is president of a PDP-Laban faction, which counts Duterte himself as its chairman.
The #HoldTheLine coalition, composed of press freedom and civil society organizations, journalists, filmmakers and other like-minded individuals from all over the world, condemned the case against Ressa and other journalists.
“This latest attack, spearheaded by a senior member of the Philippine government, spotlights the need to urgently decriminalize libel in the Philippines. It has become a political tool used for the legal harassment of journalists and news outlets by the Duterte administration. It chills freedom of expression, suppresses independent journalism, and assaults the public’s right to know. It also directly contravenes international law,” the coalition said in a statement.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has been making the same call – to decriminalize libel in the Philippines. – With a report from Mara Cepeda/Rappler.com