PHILIPPINES: Why journalists should be convicted for libel for publishing a police report? 

AHRC-STM-165-2013.jpgAfter nine years of trial, on September 3 Stella Estremera, editor-in-chief of Sun.Star Davao; and Antonio Ajero, the newspaper’s former publisher, were convicted by a local court in Digos City for a criminal case of libel. They were convicted based on the complaint of Baguio Saripada, a former city government employee, after his name was included in the list of 32 suspected drug users and pushers who surrendered to the police. The article was published in the newspaper on July 28, 2003.

At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Carmelita Sarno-Davin, presiding judge of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) 18, held Estremera and Ajero guilty “for failing to get the side of complainant”, and imposed a “P 6,000 fine “with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency” and P 200,000 for moral damages to the complainant”. This conviction is the latest case on libel involving journalists in the Philippines. However, unlike previous convictions on libel cases, Estremera and Ajero were convicted not because their article was critical, but because they quoted a police report in it. In that report, the source of information by the Reporter is a police blotter or report.

In Estremera and Ajero’s case, the judgement is a regression to the standard of test and the threshold of what constitutes a crime of libel.

In the Philippines, libel is still a criminal offence in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC), and imposes a penalty of imprisonment and fine. The Government defended the keeping of libel as a criminal offence by law to protect ‘reputation’ and ‘constitutional rights’ of the aggrieved person. It argued that the “enjoyment of a private reputation is a constitutional right” and that individuals are protected by law from “slanderous attack”. They made it clear in the case of Alexander Adonis, a radio broadcaster who was convicted and imprisoned for libel, when he filed a complaint at the UN Human Rights Committee (UN Doc CCPR/C/103/D/1815/2008, para 4.2).

But Estremera and Ajero could not have damaged the reputation or slandered Saripada, the complainant, when they published his name in the article. They were reporting stories about alleged involvement of government employees in using and selling illegal drugs by citing official police reports. These types of stories are of public interest. If any person is to be held accountable it should be the policemen who produced the report, not the editor or the publisher who merely publish by quoting the police report. The police investigation reports are official documents considered as reliable, not only by journalists, but even by the judiciary as accurate and authentic. They are presumed to be correct.

The conviction of Estremera and Ajero made it clear that any journalist or editor, whether or not their writings are critical of a government employee or public officials, they could be prosecuted and had to endure trial for many years and the threat of imprisoned for libel. Clearly, what the Court’s decision means is this: the failure of Estremera and Ajero to get the side of the complainant has become the crime, not whether the publication of the name of the complainant as one of the drug users and sellers is slanderous or not. The publication of the article can in no way constitute a crime as neither of them have made criticisms or slandered the complainant but, as mentioned above, merely published the police report in which the complainant was named.

The AHRC understands that the right to freedom of expression can be subjected to restrictions, and is not an absolute right. In this case, the issue is not whether the journalists caused damage to the ‘reputation’ or violated the ‘constitutional rights’ of the complainant because they merely published the police report for the public to read. The utmost responsibility in protecting the ‘reputation’ of the complainants falls on the police as the originator of the report. As such, the responsibility for the supposed damage to the complainant’s reputation falls on the police as well, not to the journalists who merely reports stories about crimes the police investigated into.

The impact of the court’s decision, if it is not corrected, would be that any journalist, who reports and quotes official reports can be prosecuted tried and imprisoned. We are deeply concerned by the negative impact of the court’s decision. This decision exposes any journalist to unnecessary risks or threats of criminal prosecution. This could further lead to self-censorship, a decline in critical thinking, and of demanding accountability from government employee and officials.

The AHRC, therefore, urges the local court to reconsider its judgement. If this judgement is neither corrected nor challenged, it will give rise to serious repercussions to the already fragile and narrowing space of the exercise of freedom of expression in the country. This judgement has put into question how the court interprets in protecting the right of journalists in ensuring that they can exercise freely editorial independence, and without fear of being prosecuted for criminal offenses.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-165-2013
Countries : Philippines,
Issues : Freedom of expression, Judicial system, Rule of law,