The latest cyber libel charge against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, her third, and this time with reporter Rambo Talabong as co-accused, underscores the long-overdue need to decriminalize defamation given how our laws continue to be used more often than not to intimidate journalists than to seek redress.
This much seems evident when considering that this is Maria’s 10th arrest warrant and her third cyber libel case, the first of which saw her and Reynaldo Santos Jr. convicted after the Department of Justice literally stretched the law to ensure they could be prosecuted for an offense committed even before it legally existed, in less than two years.
We agree with their counsel Theodore Te’s observation that “it seems like cyber libel is now the first option in case of disagreement on reporting.”
As of November last year, we have counted at least 28 libel or cyber libel cases against journalists since mid-2016, a number of these filed by politicians and government officials.
While we do not begrudge the complainant’s right to seek redress for grievance, we do note that the article in question did say that the subject’s side was sought multiple times but was never given.
That this detail, which indicates due diligence and a conscious effort to be as fair as possible, appears to have been ignored is disturbing.
We voice our support for Maria and Rambo even as we hope the court will rule judiciously on this matter.
We stress that no less than the UN Human Rights Committee, as far back as 2011, declared the punishment for criminal libel “excessive” and in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
And in fact, last year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet railed against the 12-year prescription period for cyber libel that the DOJ cooked up for the first case against Maria and Rey Santos. She also said imprisonment “is never an appropriate penalty for defamation” and called for decriminalization.
Therefore, we once again call on Congress to do away with one of the most commonly used weapons against independent journalism by making the decriminalization of libel and cyber libel a priority and thus prove their oft-professed respect for civil rights.