Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada seeks for the abolishment of penalty of imprisonment in libel cases, saying that such stiff penalty curtails freedom of expression and threatens journalists and other media personnel who criticize or expose erroneous acts.
In Senate Bill 83, one of his priority measures, Sen. Estrada cites that while a newspaperman may share his views publicly on controversial issues and individuals, he remains unprotected from the risk of imprisonment if convicted of libel.
Under the Revised Penal Code, one count of libel is punishable by law with imprisonment of up to six years and one day, and a fine of up to P6,000.
“This loophole is in direct opposition to the freedom of speech and should warrant necessary revisions,” the lawmaker states in the bill’s explanatory note.
“It is an irony that we call our country a land of democracy and yet we have the highest ratings of media killings and intimidation in Asia. Why should a reporter be penalized when he only speaks of the truth or when he voices out his just opinion to the masses who need to know what is going on?” Sen. Estrada further says.
In a similar bill decriminalizing libel, Senate Bill 683, the senator emphasized the individual’s rights against unethical and irresponsible journalism, but maintained that imprisonment is not a just penalty for such cases. Civil damages, he said, may be enough penalty and deterrence, considering the present economic situation of journalists.
In a related development, Jinggoy concurred with the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s reported position that the country’s libel law is incompatible with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, specifically on freedom of expression.
The Philippines became a state party signatory to the abovementioned covenant on December 1966 and the same was ratified on October 1986.
“I am hoping that the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s view on decriminalization of libel would strengthen the clamor to eradicate the punishment of not only gagging journalists but also killing the freedom of expression,” he added.
Article 19 of the Covenant states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference,” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice…subject to certain restrictions like respect of the rights of others and the protection of national security or of public order and public health or morals.”