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Philippine Libel Law Used Against Journalist

Marites Danguilan Vitug, a respected Filipina journalistMarites Danguilan Vitug, a respected Filipina journalist

Philippine Libel Law Used Against Journalist

Marites Danguilan Vitug, a respected Filipina journalist, was forced to post P10,000 bail Friday on criminal libel charges that she had defamed Supreme Court Justice Presbitero Velasco in a recent book.

The laws have been used by a long series of Filipino politicians and business figures including Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, the former president’s husband, to attempt to quell critical reporting. Arroyo filed 43 complaints seeking P70 million against editors, publishers and reporters in 2006 and 2007, earning a denunciation from the international press protection organization Reporters Without Borders for hounding reporters and "eroding press freedom in the Philippines." Most of the stories contained allegations of corruption on the part of the president and her husband. Eventually, all of the suits were dismissed.

“If we are found guilty, we’ve got to go to prison,” Vitug said in a telephone interview. “But it is not common for journalists to be convicted in the Philippines. The courts work very slowly, there have only been two cases so far of journalists who have actually spent time in jail, and the sentences have been short.” It is not clear at this point when the case will come to trial, said Vitug, who chairs the advisory board for the investigative journalism operation Newsbreak.

The use of such libel laws is especially effective against smaller publications, radio and television stations in provinces far from the capital, according to Melinda de Jesus of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in Manila in an earlier interview. At one point, de Jesus told Asia Sentinel, 150 criminal libel suits were filed against one paper in a single year.

"There used to be a period when basically you felt if you had a libel case filed against you, you were hard-hitting and it was worn like a purple heart," de Jesus said. "We do have a highly complex, multilayered system, in terms of the time and process it takes for an issue to go through. But that has not affected how quickly public officials file cases. Of most of the cases filed, few end in convictions."

In the book, Shadow of Doubt, Vitug quoted residents of the Marinduque constituency as saying the Supreme Court justice was active in organizing his son’s ticket, inviting two local officials to run with his son as councillor and promising to underwrite campaign expenses, and that he was also present in Allan’s meetings with local leaders in his beachfront residence in Torrijos, Marinduque.

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MARITES DAÑGUILAN VITUG is a distinguished journalist and has won the National Book Award in journalism for Power from the Forest: The Politics of Logging, her first book and a pioneering work on governance and the environment,and Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao (with Glenda Gloria). 

Marites is also the author of Jalan-Jalan: A Journey through EAGA (with Criselda Yabes) which was chosenby Asiaweek as one of the best books on Asia (1999).She is editor in chief of Newsbreak and has written for national and international publications on Philippine security, governance and social issues, politics, and the judiciary.

Marites has received awards for her work from international and local bodies.