No improvement for press freedom: Journalist murdered and libel law under criticism

21. December 2021 | Freedom of Press, Human Rights News

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Once again, a journalist was murdered. Jesus Malabanan was shot dead at home in his small store in Calbayong City, Samar, in the early evening of Dec. 8, 2021. Malabanan had long worked for the British news agency Reuters, and also for The Manila Times, as a correspondent. Most recently, he wrote for The Manila Standard. He was involved in Reuters coverage of the so-called war on drugs, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. According to his former colleague, Manny Mogato, Malabanan received death threats at the time. Reuters then helped him go into hiding for several months. Both the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS) launched investigations. According to statements by Joel Sy Egco, executive director of PTFoMS, Malabanan was no longer involved in critical reporting. The Manila Standard expressed outrage, pointing out that their employees were not contacted officially before any such conclusion followed. “We reject the Palace narrative that all is well and that journalists are finally safe, because this is an insult to our colleagues who have been killed, and to all journalists who are still fighting daily, big and small battles, just to do their job.” The Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) launched its own investigation into the case on December 9, 2021, condemning the murder of Jesus Malabanan. He is the 22nd journalist killed under the current administration.

Freedom of the press and expression in the Philippines did not improve this year. The country dropped in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. For the first time, Duterte was listed as one of the 37 “press freedom predators.” This was mirrored by the international recognition of Maria Ressa’s work. She received two prizes for her efforts against disinformation and freedom of expression and press in the Philippines: the UNESCO Press Freedom Prize (also known as the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize) on May 2, 2021, and the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8, 2021. After Ressa encountered difficulties in leaving the country to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, she was eventually allowed to travel for five days. She was able to deliver her speech.

A frequently used tool for intimidation and repression of journalists are lawsuits for libel. The latest wave of charges involve employees of 7 news agencies: ABS-CBN, Business Mirror, BusinessWorld, GMA News Online, Manila Bulletin, Philstar.com and Rappler. All of these complaints from Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi and businessman Dennis Uy, a major campaign sponsor of Duterte, relate to the coverage of the controversial purchase of the Malampaya gas field. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines (EJAP) condemned the complaints as an attempt of intimidation and an attack on press freedom. The volunteer organization of lawyers Philippine Bar Association (PBA) publicly announced in a statement that it will support those affected with legal assistance and counseling: “[We will] not allow the law on libel to be weaponized against the vanguards of our democracy.”

The calls to decriminalize libel are not new. Back in March 2016, the Action Network Human Rights – Philippines condemned this approach in the context of a lawsuit filed by a controversial mining company against the Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc. (PMPI). Internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer Amal Clooney supports the Philippine Supreme Court’s (SC) calls to prosecute defamation cases civilly rather than criminally. She and the United Nations point out that the legal basis for such charges dates back to colonial times. Clooney leads the team that legally defends Maria Ressa.

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