Decriminalizing libel OK, but only with right to reply – Pimentel

October 1, 2008

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. in a statement issued yesterday said he has urged Congress to stop dilly-dallying on the bill decriminalizing libel which has been proposed a long time ago to make the law less harsh for journalists who are punished for reports that are unfair and defamatory to certain individuals.

But he also insists that a measure erasing the criminal aspect in libel laws should however go hand in hand with the aggrieved parties being given the media space for their replies.

Sen. Richard Gordon, who heads the committee that is tasked with hearings on the libel decriminalization bills, is said to be in favor of doing away with the criminal aspect on political libel.

Other senators, such as Senate President ProTempore Jinggoy Estrada, Senators Francis “Chiz” Escudero and Ramon Revilla Jr., have also submitted several bills on amending the libel law.

In the House of Repre-sentatives, Speaker Prospero Nograles has also set the ball rolling on moves to decriminalize libel but, to date, neither the Senate nor the House appears to have made this measure a priority.

Pimentel said while the Supreme Court (SC) has spared journalists from jail terms in its recent decisions involving libel cases, the fate of the measure to decriminalize libel remains uncertain in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

But he said he is glad that

the Senate committee on constitutional amendments and revision of laws, headed by Senator Gordon, has started public hearings on the proposal.

The minority leader pointed out that the justification for the decriminalization of libel has been strengthened when Chief Justice Reynato Puno early this year issued a circular advising judges all over the country to refrain from imposing jail sentences on journalists and other persons convicted of libel.

The Chief Justice in his circular noted that in most libel cases, journalists make mistakes with honest intentions. Therefore, he said, journalists who commit such offense need not be penalized with imprisonment and the payment of a fine “would already satisfy the intent of the law to punish the culprit.”

The Puno circular, however, also leaves it to the judges’ discretion on either giving the convicted journalists a P6,000 fine or sentencing the journalists to a jail term.

But it has also been noted that with the Puno circular providing a fine on convicted journalists, the high court, which has been known in the past for upholding the journalists’ freedom of speech through various rulings which have become doctrine, has lately been upholding the lower courts and the appellate courts’ conviction of the journalists, letting them off with a fine.

Pimentel said Puno stated that the circular was meant to be an “interim measure” to aid members of the judiciary in handling libel suits pending the passage by Congress of the law decriminalizing libel.

“The Puno circular should help legislators in resolving doubts over the propriety of modifying the country’s outmoded libel law,” Pimentel said.

Libel is defined under the Revised Penal Code as “a public and malicious imputation of a crime, vice or defect, whether real or not, tending to cause the dishonor of a person or to blacken the memory of the dead.”

Pimentel stressed that the decriminalization of libel should go hand in hand with a related measure: The right of reply that can be availed of by people who are unduly criticized or maligned by the media.

The measure is embodied in Senate Bill 2l50 which has already been approved on third and final reading by the Senate but is still awaiting passage by the House.

The bill provides that “all persons who are accused directly or indirectly of any crime or offense or are criticized by innuendo or rumor for any lapse in behavior in public or private life shall have the right to reply to the charges published in newspapers and other publications or to criticisms over radio, television, website or through any electrical device.”

Pimentel said some members of the media are wary of the right to reply proposal for fear that it may infringe on their discretion to decide on what items to publish or air in the newspapers or broadcast networks.

But the senator said that “the bill will in fact widen the freedom of expression by obliging the media to provide space to the response and explanation of persons to media reports or commentaries that are inaccurate, unfair or biased against them and injurious to their reputation.”

He stressed that the publication or airing of the side of the aggrieved parties will enhance the credibility of the media outfits concerned and at the same time eliminate a source of friction or conflict that will cause trouble to the journalists concerned.

Such conflict, according to Pimentel, usually prompts the aggrieved parties to file a libel case against the defaulting journalists. Ultimately, he said it is the media practitioners themselves who will benefit from the enactment of the right of reply.




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