The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines yesterday decried the "propensity" of First Gentleman Miguel Arroyo to sue for libel journalists who have written stories critical of him and the presidential family.
While not disputing Arroyo's right to defend himself, the NUJP said however that "(w)hat we decry is his propensity to sue journalists so as to muzzle those he does not agree with and sending out a clear signal to others that they risk the same ordeal should they dare cross him."
To date Arroyo has sued a total of 43 editors and journalists.
"The record number of cases Mr. Arroyo has filed highlight how the powerful in this benighted land regularly abuse libel laws to curtail the democratic right of the press to delve into the truth behind matters of public interest and the people's right to know," the NUJP said.
A wanton disregard for press freedom
The law on libel exists to protect private citizens from unwarranted damage to reputation, but in the Philippines libel has been predominantly used by public officials as a tool to cow an independent press.
The most glaring example is the multiple libel cases filed by First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo against 43 reporters, columnists, editors, publishers, and even a subscription manager, of various publications.
We will not dispute the merits of the cases nor Mr. Arroyo's right to defend his honor and dignity, as he and his lawyers insist.
What we decry is his propensity to sue journalists so as to muzzle those he does not agree with and sending out a clear signal to others that they risk the same ordeal should they dare cross him.
Mr. Arroyo is, after all, no ordinary mortal. As presidential husband, he clearly enjoys immense power and influence, not just by his status but also because he does head the Office of the First Gentleman. And many, if not most, of his deeds and pronouncements dwell in the realm of public interest.
He is, therefore, both a public figure and public official.
That he is aware of this status and has no qualms of wielding it against his perceived enemies is evident in the fact that, when he filed his latest suit against the Tulfo brothers, he gave his address as Malacañang Palace, as if to stress who he is.
The record number of cases Mr. Arroyo has filed highlight how the powerful in this benighted land regularly abuse libel laws to curtail the democratic right of the press to delve into the truth behind matters of public interest and the people's right to know.
It is also the best argument for decriminalizing an outdated law that has been used not so much to protect the innocent as to shield the guilty.
We demand that Congress immediately work to repeal the law on libel, to strike it off the book of criminal statutes, as part of its sworn duty to strengthen our badly eroded and still beleaguered democracy.
We demand that Jose Miguel Arroyo cease and desist from this clear abuse of his power and influence and squarely face the issues raised against him where they are properly addressed, in the arena of free and democratic discourse.
We pledge that neither this nor any other attempts by those in power to trample on the freedom of the press and the people's right to know shall go unchallenged.
We commit ourselves to the continued struggle to realize the true blooming of democracy in our land, when freedom of expression shall be enshrined not just in our aspirations but in practice.