(ABS-CBN NEWS) MANILA — Sen. Jinggoy Estrada is seeking to abolish imprisonment for libel cases involving journalists.
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In the explanatory note of his Senate Bill No. 2521, Estrada noted the challenges faced by journalists in the Philippines.
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“The Philippines is perceived as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, with numerous cases of killings against media practitioners in recent years. In the 2022 Global Impunity Index… The Philippines ranked 7th in the world with 14 unsolved murders,” Estrada said.
Estrada said Filipino journalist should not have the legal system working against them while they do their jobs.
“It does not help that while journalists are under attack, the domestic legal framework poses another serious threat – through imprisonment due to libel, which is currently a criminal offense… Civil damages may be enough penalty and deterrence,” he said.
Libel in the Philippines is defined as “public and malicious imputation of a crime, vice, or defect, whether real or imaginary, that has the potential to harm someone’s reputation or tarnish the memory of a deceased individual.” Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code classifies libel as a criminal offense.
Instead of imprisonment, which currently ranges from one month to six months, Estrada suggested a fine of P5,000 to P15,000 on any reporter, editor, or manager of a newspaper, daily, or magazine who publishes facts related to someone’s private life that are offensive to their honor, virtue, and reputation.
The bill also covers community journalists or those who operate in limited areas, as well as publications or broadcast stations.
Estrada is proposing that offense and penalty be covered within six months from the initial publication, airing, or exhibition of the libelous material.
PRONE TO ABUSE
Estrada said a new provision was necessary in the Revised Penal Code to provide for the venue of civil action in libel cases.
Currently, in libel cases involving public officers, they can file complaints in Manila if their office is there, or in courts outside Manila if their office is elsewhere. Private individuals file in the trial court where they reside when the alleged libel occurred, the senator said.
“However, this system is often abused by subjects of news articles, causing unnecessary harassment and inconvenience to journalists and media organizations. They file suits in distant locations, leading to unjust imprisonment or bail, even if the cases are later dropped, resolved, or dismissed,” Estrada said.
Instead, the senator proposes that cases be filed in the regional trial court of the province or city where their principal office or place of business is located.
As early as 2004 or during his first time as a senator, Estrada has been advocating for the decriminalization of libel and re-filed the bill in the succeeding 14th, 15th, and 16th Congresses.
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“It is unfortunate that despite the clarion call of mass media organizations and human rights groups to amend prevailing laws on libel, they have remained untouched over the years. Efforts to revise existing laws to strengthen press freedom have languished in the Senate legislative mill for two decades since I first filed this bill,” he said.