A recent report by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, released on World Press Freedom Day (May 3), showed the Philippines as having "improved" by 15 spots in its World Press Freedom Index.
According to the report, media in the Philippines has remained "extremely vibrant despite the government’s targeted attacks and constant harassment," not to mention the proliferation of fake news.
But, as RSF has pointed out, the real danger lies not in the national level but also in the regional and local level.
The report lamented that journalists covering local beats still face the “targets of threats and lawsuits, while women journalists are subjected to specific gender-based threats – threats of rape, cyber-harassment, disclosure of personal details and so on.”
Let’s face it, libel has proved to be a convenient and handy tool for a few local officials to intimidate local journalists whose honest and objective reporting have offended them.
Not only are these libel cases costly and time-consuming, the mere fact that libel carries a possible jail sentence plus payment of damages to the aggrieved party (something most journalists couldn’t afford) is enough to scare them into “falling in line” with the current administration.
Such tactics have, unfortunately, deprived the public of their right to know (and participate) in the various issues affecting their community.
Several bills have been filed in Congress to “decriminalize” libel, as some solons believe that this move will not only deprive unscrupulous officials of a surefire harassment tactic but also clear our “clogged” court dockets and easing the burden of our judiciary.
Unfortunately, such measures have stalled in Congress, with no clear timeline as to when they can be passed into law, if at all.
Here in the Philippines, laws have been conveniently used by the rich and the powerful to scare the masses into bowing into their will – contravening the very spirit of why laws are passed: to protect those who, as former President Ramon Magsaysay had said, are “less in life.”
If the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. is serious and sincere in doing away with the stains of the family’s past – including the repression of independent media – decriminalizing libel is an important step forward in fostering an environment of unity and public participation.