Lawyers’ group to defend reporter in P75-M ‘Pacman’ libel suit

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/12 March) — The Center for International Law (CenterLaw) will defend a journalist here sued by world boxing icon and Sarangani Rep. Emmanuel “Manny” D. Pacquiao for a P75-million libel suit, a lawyer said on Monday.

Romel Regalado Bagares, CenterLaw executive director, said they agreed to defend Edwin G. Espejo in the libel suit the boxer’s lawyers filed last week.

CenterLaw is a human rights organization dedicated to the promotion of free expression and a charter member of the Southeast Asia Media Defense Network, an alliance of regional lawyers’ and media advocacy groups providing legal support to journalists facing legal persecution for the work they do.

In a statement, Bagares said it is not too late for Mr. Pacquaio to withdraw the complaint he filed against the journalist.

Pacquiao’s case stemmed from the recent articles of Espejo, which appeared at online news outfits Asian Correspondent and MindaNews.

At the Asian Correspondent, the piece was titled “Stolen car dealer finds refuge in Pacman mansion,” while MindaNews titled it “Dealer of stolen cars last seen in Pacman mansion.

“The suit comes on the heels of a view released by the UN Human Rights Committee finding that criminal libel in the Philippines violates its obligations to protect free expression under Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which it is a signatory,” said Bagares.

“It would do well for Pacquiao in his job as a legislator to support calls for the decriminalization of libel in the country by recalling the suit he filed against Mr. Espejo,” he added.

Bagares urged Pacquiao to lead the way by supporting or filing a bill to decriminalize Philippine libel laws.

Espejo had tried getting the congressman’s side to the story but could not reach him as he was then abroad. He had spoken with a lawyer for Pacquiao, who promptly denied to him that the congressman had anything to do with Akia.

“From the legal point of view, there is no libel in what he wrote about Rep. Pacquaio,” said Bagares. “Mr. Espejo followed the standard journalistic procedure in verifying the story with sources and in obtaining Rep. Pacquaio’s side. Moreover, the issue is clearly a matter of public interest subject to reportage and fair comment.”

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) earlier urged Pacquiao to withdraw his complaint saying he is in a good position to set an example for other politicians to emulate.

“It would be a shame if Pacquiao should risk his well-deserved reputation by succumbing to the same urge that has seen abusive official after abusive official resorting to our draconian criminal libel law — or even worse measures — to stifle reasonable criticism and critical coverage,” the NUJP said.

Espejo heads the NUJP chapter for South Cotabato, Sarangani and General Santos City. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)