Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Libel season opens

And speaking of libel suits, here's a collection of recent reports on libel prepared by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. Hmm. How come PAGASA didn't inform us that we're going to experience a heavy downpour of libel suits?

Solon files libel vs. local journalist A local journalist was recently slapped with libel by a congressman in Pampanga, 80 kilometers north of Manila.

Dante Fabian, a Sun.Star Pampanga reporter, was sued by Pampanga Rep. Francis Nepomuceno over three stories on the alleged P19-million water pipes scam in Pampanga’s first district, which the official represents.

In his complaint filed last 03 August, Nepomuceno called the stories a form of “malicious reporting.”

Narciso Sula, the paper’s general manager, said Fabian was “singled out” while one of the sources of the stories, Angeles City Mayor Carmelo Lazatin, Nepomuceno’s longtime political rival, was spared from litigation.

Members of the Pampanga Press Club condemned Nepomuceno’s filing of libel as an apparent attempt to harass a member of the press.

Nepomuceno denied using the libel suit to harass Fabian.

“If I had wanted to harass him I would not have resorted to this legal process,” he told the Manila-based Philippine Daily Inquirer on Wednesday. “All I want from [Fabian] is fair reporting.”

He said Lazatin and the others liable for the “defamatory” stories would be given their day in court. The paper was not cited as a respondent.

But Fabian said he had always gone out of his way to seek Nepomuceno’s side. Always, he said, Nepomuceno did not reply.

His reports, Fabian said, were based on the official letters of local village leaders who claimed they did not receive water pipes distributed in 2005 by the Department of Public Works and Highways and funded by Nepomuceno’s priority development assistance fund (PDAF), more commonly known as “pork barrel fund.”

In his complaint, Nepomuceno said at least five investigation reports from the Office of the Ombudsman for Luzon, Public Works Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. and the Commission on Audit’s regional office “confirmed my innocence and that the alleged anomaly that they were trying to impute unto me were proved baseless.”

Fabian said there was reason to pursue the story because village leaders continued to report the non-delivery of the water pipes.

Lazatin said he exposed the supposed anomaly in light of President Macapagal-Arroyo’s campaign against graft.

“[Fabian] should not have been sued. Nobody should be sued because there are documentary evidences [which show] that something went wrong,” Lazatin said.

He said it was not Nepomuceno but the officials’ employees who should be compelled to make a proper accounting of the “missing pipes.” (based on reports by the Inquirer News Service).
Deposed president files US$0.6-M libel vs. broadsheet

Former President Joseph Estrada filed a P30-million (US$582,000) libel suit against the staff a Manila-based newspaper and two individuals on 03 August for allegedly accusing him of malicious charges.

In his 19-page complaint, Estrada filed the said case against reporter Christine Herrera and editors of the Manila Standard Today, Joelle Marie Pelaez, and her mother, Blanquita, at his rest house in Tanay, Rizal, where he is detained while being tried on plunder charges.

Estrada said he was filing the libel suit to let the people know that the charges leveled against him have ruined “his name, honor and integrity.”

Pelaez claimed that her name was used by Estrada and his allies to launder billions worth of government securities and bonds. She has filed cases against Estrada and a number of bank officials.

The story was published by Standard Today in a series of articles from 15 to 19 May.

In a Manila Standard Today interview, Pelaez alleged that Estrada and his cronies used her name to launder P2.07 billion in securities, bonds and other debt instruments in 2000.

Estrada was ousted during a popular revolt on 24 January 2001 – just less than three years after he was elected as president – for charges of corruption and plunder.

Presidential spouse suing hard-hitting brothers for libel

Jose Miguel Arroyo, the husband of Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is planning to file a libel suit against the Tulfo brothers for their alleged "rehashed and malicious lies."

Jesus Santos, Arroyo’s lawyer, said that the planned libel suit stemmed from the recent tirades made by broadcast journalists Ramon, Raffy, and Erwin Tulfo, whose program titled “Isumbong Mo, Tulfo Brothers” was recently cancelled by its carrier, the government-owned RPN-9.

The television station had earlier issued a statement saying the decision not to renew the contract of the Tulfos was a "painful decision though it was done without fear or favor."

The Tulfos however, claimed in a press conference two weeks ago in Quezon City that it was Arroyo who had requested RPN-9 not to renew the contract of their television program in retaliation for their exposes on the alleged smuggling activities of Vicky Toh and her brother Tomas Toh.

Santos said his client had nothing to do with the cancellation of the show of the Tulfos.

Ramon, the eldest of the siblings, had claimed that the Tohs are virtually "untouchable" at the Bureau of Customs because they are protected by the Arroyo.

He had also claimed it was President (Gloria) Arroyo who gave him the go-signal to do the expose.

Santos said the Bureau of Customs had just concluded a seven-month investigation "which found no record or evidence against the Tohs. The investigation report was signed by six people and noted by two directors and one deputy Customs commissioner. Again we dare Ramon to call these officials liars."

Mr. Arroyo has sued or is suing six politicians, two publishers, and 12 editors and writers, including the Tulfo brothers.

In an P11-million (US$213,385) damage suit against Lito Banayo, a former The Daily Tribune columnist and spokesman for opposition senator Panfilo Lacson, Arroyo complained Mr. Banayo had described him as "el esposo gordo" (the fat spouse). This description was "obviously meant to denigrate me for my rotundity," Arroyo complained.

Appearing in court for a pretrial hearing of the Banayo case, Arroyo brought along bomb-sniffing dogs and presidential palace guards, who barred the media from the proceedings, according to court sources.

The judge, Concepcion Alarcon-Vergara, ordered Mr. Banayo’s lawyer to cross-examine Mr. Arroyo without being given time to study Mr. Arroyo’s 102-page testimony.

Two weeks ago, Malaya newspaper publisher Jake Macasaet, along with his editors and reporters, were compelled to attend a pretrial conference after being arraigned on Arroyo’s libel charges.

All have pleaded not guilty to maliciously publishing a May 2004 article in which former opposition senator Francisco Tatad named Mr. Arroyo as "chief cheating operator".

Tatad, however, was dropped from the charge sheet after he claimed he was misquoted.

Ellen Tordesillas, Malaya chief of reporters, was also originally among those accused, but she was dropped from the case for unknown reasons.

Tordesillas, a veteran journalist who is being treated for cancer, said the case had shown her first-hand how such suits were "really expensive" in terms of time, money and effort.

"I had to go to court even if I had just finished chemotherapy," she complained. "Lawsuits are one way to pressure the media into silence by intimidation."

Broadcaster’s conviction affirmed

The Court of Appeals (CA) recently affirmed the conviction of a journalist for 14 counts of libel arising from several articles he had written nearly a decade ago about a customs officer.

Abante Tonite columnist and part-time television broadcaster Raffy Tulfo was previously convicted by Judge Priscilla Mijares of the Pasay City Regional Trial Court, sentencing him to two years, four months and one day in prison for each of the 14 counts – equivalent to 32 years and eight months – plus a fine of over P14.7 million (US$285,000).

In its 31 July 2006 resolution, the CA said the prosecution had successfully proven that Tulfo’s stories were written in “reckless disregard” for the truth.

According to the decision, the complainant Carlos So, a former Bureau of Customs intelligence officer, was pictured as an extortionist, smuggler, grafter, corrupt public official, womanizer and a violator of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, among others.

Bill stops use of libel to harass media

In a recent positive development, the House of Representatives approved on third and final reading House Bill 77 requiring libel suits against journalists, publications or broadcast stations be filed at the regional trial court of the province or city where the journalist, publication or broadcast station holds its principal office.

The approval enables the bill’s transmission to the Senate. Once a bicameral version of the bill has been approved by both the House of Representatives and Senate, it goes to the Office of the President for approval.

According to the said bill, civil actions connected with such libel suits should also be filed in the same court where the criminal complaint is filed.

Cebu Rep. Raul del Mar, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill will prevent individuals from using libel as a convenient tool to harass journalists.

“Libel, whether filed as a criminal or civil action, is used as a convenient legal tool to harass journalists, especially the community newspaper and broadcast practitioners,” Del Mar said, stressing the need to address this particular concern of local journalists.

“The community journalist and his organization, mostly financially handicapped and already afflicted with all sorts of pressures and threats, need immediate relief from the present rule on venue of libel cases, whether criminal or civil, which create an opportunity for oppression,” the lawmaker said.

Under prevailing court rules, Del Mar said the complainant or offended party, if he is a public officer, can file the complaint in Manila if his office is in Manila or in the office outside Manila if his office is located there.

If he is a private person, the venue is his place of residence at the time of the commission of the offense.

Because of this, a newspaper or broadcast station in Aparri or Jolo, Cebu or Davao can be made to answer a complaint filed in Metro Manila where the complainant resides although the cause of action did not arise in Metro Manila.

Del Mar noted that this situation is not changed by the fact that the complainant or offended party has the option to file the action at the regional trial court of the province or city where the libelous article is printed or first published. This is because the offended party usually does not exercise that option since he chooses the venue that is far away from the principal office of the defendant.

Just recently, two separate filed libel suits were set for pre-trial in the coming months in Makati and Quezon City – both located in Metro Manila – against the staff of Bandillo ng Palawan, a community newspaper based in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, around 600 kilometers south of Manila.

Arroyo's photo from this site.

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