Calls to decriminalize libel grow after Baguio journo convicted for cyber libel

Last Dec. 13, press freedom advocates and human rights activists reiterated calls to decriminalize libel after a Quezon City court convicted Baguio-based journalist Frank Cimatu of cyber libel.

In a 2017 Facebook post, Cimatu said then-agriculture secretary Emmanuel Piñol amassed P21-million at the height of the bird flu outbreak when the virus spread in Central Luzon.

Cimatu is a contributor to Rappler, an editor of the Baguio Chronicle and an officer of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) Baguio-Benguet Chapter.

The nationwide body of the NUJP said in a statement, “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 added that, on top of “inordinate penalties creating a chilling effect,” libel was “incompatible” with the 1987 Constitution as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which the Philippines is a state party.

The Baguio Writers Group (BWG), which was formerly headed by Cimatu, supported NUJP’s stand and underlined the importance of free public expression and association.

“It is the right of journalists, writers and individual citizens more widely to comment on, communicate their opinions about, and in some cases even satirize public figures, including public officials. Such freedoms, and the allowance of space for such freedoms, are the foundations of a democratic and healthy society,” the BWG said.

Also among those rallying by Cimatu’s side are his Rappler colleagues led by Nobel laureate and CEO Maria Ressa, who described the case as an “example of the weaponization of the cybercrime law to harass and intimidate journalists.” 

Altermidya, the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, the Movement Against Disinformation and the UP Institute of Creative Writing also stood by the Baguio journalist after his conviction.

The New York-based nongovernmental organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged Philippine authorities to decriminalize libel as its abuse “kills” press freedom.

“The spurious charge against Philippine journalist Frank Cimatu should be dropped and authorities should start work immediately on decriminalizing libel and overhauling the overbroad cybercrime provisions that allow for these kinds of outrageous convictions,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative said.

Immediately following the ruling, Senator Risa Hontiveros filed Senate Bill 1593, seeking to repeal provisions of the Revised Penal Code and the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 to remove the criminal aspect of libel.

Hontiveros stressed that it was “important now more than ever to protect the journalism profession” to combat fake news and to protect democracy.

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