Bill to decriminalize libel filed

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/04 August) –  Former journalist and now Bayan Muna Rep.  Carlos Isagani Zarate and his party-mate Neri Colmenares have filed a bill decriminalizing libel, saying that while a free press acts as the watchdog for the governed, the libel law has been “increasingly used by public officials as a tool to cow and muzzle an independent press.”

In their two-page explanatory note, the Bayan Muna representatives  said the libel law has been “increasingly used to stifle press freedom and inhibit media criticism of government officials and their acts and decisions.”

“Journalists critical of government officials or government acts and decisions speak or write under the threat of criminal prosecution. The net effect of this abuse of the libel law by the powers-that-be is the gagging of media practitioners, the suppression of the truth from becoming public, and the resulting inability of the people to gain a meaningful understanding of the various public issues that are of paramount concern,” the explanatory note said.

Zarate and Colmenares said Congress “must immediately work to repeal the law on libel in order for the press to enjoy the free exercise of its duties and function, and as a corollary, for the people to have an unfettered access to information involving matters of public concern.”

Before he became a lawyer, Zarate was a journalist. He wrote for the Media Mindanao News Service and Malaya. In 2001, he became one of the columnists for the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Kris-Crossing Mindanao

The two representatives said a free press is essential in democracy because it “ferrets out graft and corruption wherever it may occur and exposes its perpetrators, reveals dishonest and inept administration, contributes to the exchange of ideas, and advances communication between the governed and those who govern.”

Decriminalizing libel is “step in favor of freedom of speech, of expression, and of the press” as it will “remove much of its potency as an instrument to intimidate and harass” and allow journalists to do their work without fear of being jailed because of criminal complaints by those who are offended by their reporting.

The Bayan Muna representatives explained that a person who feels aggrieved can seek redress for the wrong done against him or act to enforce his right by filing an action for damages based on the Civil Code of the Philippines,

“A media practitioner may be held civilly liable for damages if he/she violates Article 19 of the Civil Code which enjoins him/her to act with justice and to observe honesty and good faith when exercising his/her rights and while performing his/her duties,” the  bill’s explanatory note added.

It added that Article 26 of the Civil Code “should remind the media of their duty to respect the dignity, personality, privacy, and peace of mind of others, otherwise, they may be held civilly liable for damages for violations thereof.” (MindaNews)