Living with libel suits
On Thursday, February 21, a group of women writers who got together in the final years of the Marcos dictatorship will open an exhibit of their works spanning 30 years at the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings. Here’s part of my talk:
For journalists, there’s always a first time for libel suits. This is usually a memorable event—perhaps like a first kiss or a first date.
Mine was in the late ’80s (I was 30 years old or so then), when I was a contributor to the Manila Chronicle. I wrote what I thought was an innocuous story on Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco, relative of then President Cory Aquino, and her foray into Mindanao politics and business. What stung her about the article was a reference to her as the “barter queen”—this phrase was in quotes and I picked it up from sources in Mindanao.
At the time, she was a highly visible public figure and barter trade between Sabah and Tawi-Tawi and other Mindanao provinces was active.
It came as a complete shock when she filed a libel suit which eventually reached the Supreme Court.
Cojuangco wanted the lower court to issue a hold-departure order and stop me from travelling overseas. I was then set to leave for my almost year-long post-graduate scholarship in London.
My pro-bono lawyer, Francis Jardeleza (who is now solicitor general), elevated our case to the Supreme Court. The justices allowed me to leave the country. It was a sweet victory.
I learned lessons which I’ve taken to heart: to be very careful about quotes, to always verify information with trusted sources, and never to take reporting for granted. This way, you lessen the chances for frivolous lawsuits.
But a few years later, despite being faithful to the tenets of journalism, another libel suit hit me. This time, a mega-wealthy businessman sued me for P20 million. In the early 1990s, it was the most expensive libel suit ever filed.
The Manila bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review and I (I was a freelance journalist then) wrote a cover story for the magazine on the plunder of Palawan’s forests. The bureau chief had just left for a new assignment so I was left alone to face the consequences. Fortunately, the editor in chief of the Review was very supportive. He flew to Manila (from Hong Kong) to assure me that the magazine would hire a lawyer and foot the bill.
Eventually, the case was dismissed.
Postscript: Businessman Jose "Pepito" Alvarez left the logging business and moved to car manufacturing here and in Vietnam. We’ve since spoken to each other.
These two experiences prepared me for the libel suits that were filed against Newsbreak. Always, the editor in chief is included in these law suits. Among those who sued us were Juan Ponce Enrile, Chavit Singson, and Robert Barbers.
Enrile decided to settle—without any apology from us—and agreed to a lifetime subscription of Newsbreak as payment for damages, sort of. Newsbreak has died and Enrile is still alive. Who would know that he would live much longer than our little magazine?
Barbers died before the case was resolved and we’ve been in touch with his sons and agreed to move the proceedings to a mediation court.
Chavit Singson is the last holdout. He refuses to talk to us despite feelers sent through emissaries.
He filed the case in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, his territory. Our request to transfer venue to a Metro Manila court is pending with the Supreme Court.
Today, I’m certified libel-free, almost, not counting Singson’s revenge.
Last year, after the conviction of Chief Justice Renato Corona, Supreme Court Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr dropped the two libel cases he filed against me.
A bit of background: In 2009, I decided to write a book that would look at the inner workings of the Court. I had hoped that I could help chisel at the formidable wall of secrecy surrounding the Supreme Court.
As we were preparing to launch "Shadow of Doubt" in March 2010, I received calls and text messages that Velasco had filed a 13-count libel case against me. (This was the first time in the Philippines that a sitting Justice has filed a libel suit versus a journalist.) It had to do with a story uploaded on the Newsbreak website on how Velasco was getting involved in local politics as he was helping his son who was then running for Congress. This became part of the book’s epilogue.
Almost a year later, Velasco again sued me, this time, over the book itself.
How does it feel to be sued?
After reading Justice Velasco’s affidavits, I felt like I was the worst journalist in this part of the world. I’m glad I still have my self-esteem.
It can be unnerving and disorienting. But that comes with the territory.
How do I defend myself? By writing the facts. Of course, it is important to get good (pro-bono) lawyers.
Through the years, I’ve learned that no matter how much care you put into a story, they may still hurt some people and make them angry. These angry people threaten, sue for libel.
If that’s the consequence, I’ll choose this kind of controversy, anytime, over timid and opaque reporting. After all, journalism is not about making nice to people. It’s not about seeking to be on the good side of the powerful. - Rappler.com