press freedom

[New School] In the name of dismantling colonial-era relics

Prince Luke Cerdenia

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[New School] In the name of dismantling colonial-era relics
Senator Raffy Tulfo recently made headlines with his stance regarding the decriminalization of libel and other identical offenses

The Philippines is the very first lasting Asian republic, and one of the oldest democracies in Asia. It is one of the founding members of the United Nations, as well as a primary instigator of the drafting of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which seeks to protect free speech throughout the world. Clearly, the historical image of the country implies that it should have a clear understanding of core democratic values. However, the realities present in Filipino society suggests the contrary. With the still-debated decriminalization of libel, among other existing colonial-era policies in the country, it’s a saddening fact that the democratic space in our country is gradually being served its death sentence.

In 2021, the Philippine Supreme Court stated that the constitutionality of criminalizing libel is highly doubtful. They added that civil penalties for defamation were “more consistent with our democratic values.” Without a doubt, the fact that defamation and other similar acts are illegal in the country makes it a potential weapon against the critical press. This is further amplified by the reality that the world as it is now is made up of more autocratic than democratic nations. The underlying message is that now, more than ever, defending the press is important. 

Senator Raffy Tulfo recently made headlines with his stance regarding the decriminalization of libel and other identical offenses. According to him, decriminalizing libel was among his campaign promises, and that he was committed to fulfilling it. However, he also stated that the initiative should only apply to traditional media. He referred to others as “pseudo-journalists” – “extortionists” who have no sense of accountability, constantly attacking individuals for the sake of financial gain. (Tulfo himself is a self-proclaimed journalist of 20 years.)

Decriminalizing libel is undoubtedly correct. Defamation charges are being weaponized mostly against journalists and activists critical of the current administration. While it is a fact that journalists are meant to hold a couple of professional values and core principles, violations of these are not the usual reason for libel charges. Not only is this unjust and unconstitutional, it is also a massive waste of resources. 

Data shows that ever since the promulgation of the law criminalizing libel in 2012, Philippine authorities have junked about one-third or 1,131 cyber libel cases out of the total libel cases filed, and about 30% of all libel cases filed have been dismissed. And as of July 2022, thousands of cyber libel cases are still pending in court and with prosecutors. Latest data from the Philippine National Police (PNP) show that cyber libel makes up 20% of the cybercrimes they investigate. If a huge and burgeoning number of defamation cases shows no productive results, then isn’t the government wasting precious capital?

The criminality of defamation in the Philippines exposes our colonial roots. During Spanish colonization, policies meant to silence those who went against the Spanish government were forcefully applied. In essence, libel was born out of the fact that our former colonizers believed they needed a repressive instrument to censor criticisms and insults directed towards them. Considering the fact that libel, with its historical roots, is nothing but a dictatorial tool against critics and dissenters alike, then it must be decriminalized, or at the least reformed. Even during the time of Ferdinand Marcos, criminal defamation policies proved to be instrumental for oppression. 

Tulfo’s take on the topic, however, is vague and strongly debatable. Although his intentions may be pure, placing a distinction between traditional journalists and others is impossible. University of the Philippines Journalism Department associate professor Danilo Arao shares the same sentiments. According to him, limiting the decriminalization of libel to legitimate journalists can potentially weaken citizen journalists, a group he believed should be promoted in the name of national development. Moreso, he pointed out that decriminalizing libel does not necessarily mean shattering its existence. Instead, there should still be other existing civil legal remedies against defamation, which can still act as a maneuver against what Tulfo branded as “pseudo-journalists.”

In the Senate bill filed for the decriminalization of libel last year, it was noted that doing so would make people opt for civil actions for damages instead. That way, the court can restore the name of the allegedly defamed. It also cited articles from the 1987 Constitution as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the bill claimed to be valid grounds for the Filipino lawmaking body to repeal libel provisions in the Revised Penal Code and the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, as the latter is constitutionally-ordained. 

Filipino lawmakers must take note that we are already in the 21st century, and it is high time that the legislative branch puts a halt on punitive policies that have existed as far back as the times of colonialism, most importantly the defamation laws. Press freedom is a core fundamental of all democratic societies, a guaranteeing factor that must be venerated to protect human rights and basic privileges.

In these alarming times, when defamation charges are being used to silence the vanguards of truth, we are reminded to safeguard the truth. For the remaining genuine leaders we have, measures must immediately be taken to nullify our draconian, falsely patriotic laws – the ancient relics still present in our country. –

Prince Luke Cerdenia is a campus journalist, student leader, marketing associate, debater, and eleventh grade student from Eugenio Lopez Junior Center for Media Arts Senior High School. Currently, he is serving as the Science and Technology Head of ELJCMASHS’ official campus publication, The Vanguard.

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