Piñol on Baguio journo’s cyber libel conviction: ‘a vital lesson on responsible journalism’

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 14 December) – Former agriculture secretary Emmanuel “Manny” Piñol lauded Wednesday the conviction of Baguio City-based journalist Frank Cimatu in a cyber libel case he filed against the latter, saying “it is not just a legal victory and vindication for me but a very important lesson on responsible and accountable journalism.”

Former agriculture secretary Emmanuel Piñol. MindaNews file photo by GG BUENO

“Press freedom is not absolute,” Piñol, a former three-term governor of North Cotabato, said in a statement posted on his Facebook page.

“The purveyors of fake news who slander and shame people to the point of dishonoring them and destroying their lives must not be allowed to seek refuge behind a mantle called Press Freedom when called to account for the transgression they have committed,” he added.

In 2017, Cimatu posted on Facebook that Piñol allegedly amassed P21 million in a period of six months following the bird flu outbreak in Central Luzon.

“Agri Sec got rich by 21 M in 6 months. Bird Flu pa more,” posted Cimatu, an editor at Baguio Chronicle and a stringer of Rappler.

According to Piñol, Cimatu’s post was “not only malicious but also outright erroneous.”

Piñol, who ran but lost in the May senatorial elections, said the P21 million increase in his assets was declared in his tax returns, which was among the five-year financial records he was required to submit prior to his confirmation by the Commission on Appointment as agriculture secretary.

The P21 million increase in his net worth, Piñol said, did not represent money but the value of “biological assets” he accumulated over the years through farming.

Biological assets refer to clonal farm materials and the breeding materials of the Manok Pinoy free-range chicken that he developed, he added.

“Hindi pera ang P21 million kundi halaga ng pananim at Manok Pinoy breeders na naparami ko at inilagay sa (Income) Tax Returns kasi nangutang ako ng P10 million sa Land Bank (of the Philippines) and this was before I was appointed as agriculture secretary,” he said.

Various media groups and fellow journalists came to the defense of Cimatu, who was sentenced to suffer a minimum jail term of six months and one day to a maximum of five years, five months and 11 days.

He was also ordered to pay ₱300,000 to Piñol as moral damages.

In a 19-page decision, Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 93 Presiding Judge Evangeline Cabochan-Santos found Cimatu “guilty beyond reasonable doubt” of cyber libel charges under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 filed by Piñol.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said it was saddened by the ruling of the local court for convicting Cimatu, noting it sees no malice in the newsman’s September 24, 2017 Facebook post.

“With due respect to the local court’s decision, NUJP maintains that the right to free expression and press freedom is paramount especially when exercised in relation to public officials,” it said.

A powerful politician such as Piñol crying foul over a Facebook post of a community journalist is ironic in a supposed democratic country, the NUJP said.

Cimatu’s case is proof of how government officials use libel as a weapon to harass and intimidate journalists, the group said.

NUJP reiterated its position that libel laws should be decriminalized, saying “these are not compatible with the Bill of Rights stated in the Philippine Constitution and with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which the Philippines is a state party.”

Piñol claimed that he “truly understands the meaning of ‘free expression’ and ‘press freedom’ because I spent more than half of my life as a journalist and I am a lifetime member of the National Press Club of the Philippines.”

“The NUJP must also realize that ‘in a supposed democratic country’ the exercise of our rights is not absolute and that we are accountable for any transgression on and violation of the rights of others,” he added.

In a separate Facebook post, Piñol said that press freedom does not give journalists license to slander, dishonor and destroy people.

“Criminalizing libel ensures accountability,” he added.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed grave concern over Cimatu’s conviction.

“The cyber-libel conviction of journalist Frank Cimatu is extremely concerning and highlights the precariousness of freedom of expression in the Philippines,” Carlos Conde, HRW Philippines senior researcher, said in a statement.

The verdict came just a few days after civil society activist Sarah Dekdeken of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance was convicted of the same offense.

These rulings underscore the need to decriminalize both libel and cyber-libel and make these matters of civil, not criminal, law, Conde said.

“Criminal libel is an assault on democracy and freedom of expression. No one should spend a single day in jail for simply expressing an opinion or reporting the news,” he said.

Cimatu is reportedly planning to appeal the lower court’s decision.

Baguio-based media groups Baguio Correspondents and Broadcasters’ Club and the Kordilyera Media-Citizen Council said it “found the court’s decision unfortunate, but we consider it a temporary setback in our continuing fight to defend press freedom.”

“Cimatu’s conviction over a Facebook post does not only adversely impact on journalists, but also on the public who air critical views on issues affecting society,” they said. “No citizen of the free world should be threatened from expressing their views; more so if these are done pursuant to their roles as watchdog of the government.”

“As we push for responsible reportage, we will continue upholding press freedom and every citizen’s right to freedom of expression, which are the cornerstone of a democratic governance,” they said.

The Baguio Writers Group (BWG) condemned the use of cyberlibel law against Cimatu, who is also a poet and essayist. Cimatu previously served as BWG president.

“(This case) does not stand in isolation but is part of an ever-increasing trend to intimidate and constrict the space afforded to free public expression and association that can currently be seen across a number of domains in the nation. It should be a matter of great concern for all people that value free expression of ideas or that support the important role of writers, literary artists, and journalists in society,” BWG said in a statement. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)