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Journalists fight back, file P12.5M suit vs Mike Arroyo

Filipino journalists who found themselves sued for libel by First Gentleman Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo fought back Thursday with a class civil suit seeking P12.5 million in damages from him. According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), the P12.5 million will go to a press freedom fund should the case prosper. "The class suit is asking for (P12.5 million) in damages for the anxiety, loss of income and other inconveniences Mr. Arroyo's libel suits have allegedly caused. But it also argues that the suits have not only caused the respondents sleepless nights; they also have a chilling effect on press freedom. Should it prosper, the (P12.5) million will go into a press freedom fund," it said in a pooled editorial posted on its web log ( It said the complaint was filed before the Makati regional trial court Thursday, with media and journalists' organizations joining the list of complainants. Other groups that joined the list of complainants in the suit included the CMFR, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Newsbreak magazine and the Daily Tribune. Among those present at the Makati court were Marites Vitug, editor-in-chief of Newsbreak; Malaya columnist Ellen Tordesillas; Malaya editor Joy delos Reyes; Joe Pavia of the Philippine Press Institute; Vergel Santos of the Philippine Journalism Review; columnist Lito Banayo; Manila Times executive editor Inday Espina-Varona; Rowena Caraan of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines; and the Tulfo brothers Ramon and Erwin. Former senator Francisco Tatad, a critic of the Arroyo administration, was also present in the filing of the suit. "The suit does not dispute the right of Mr. Arroyo to file libel charges against anyone he believes has wronged him through a libelous imputation. Journalists are also aware that libel suits are part of the media territory. But the sheer number of suits he has filed (10 against 45 respondents) suggests that these are primarily intended to intimidate the press and silence criticism," the complainants said in a pooled editorial posted on the CMFR web log. They added that while Arroyo claims he has no such intention and describes himself as a private citizen, there is an Office of the First Gentleman maintained by public funds, and he wields influence and power as the President's spouse. Also, they noted libel is a criminal offense in the Philippines and a journalist can be arrested for libel and sentenced to prison and made to pay damages that can run into the millions. Mr Arroyo's claims for damages in the 10 cases he has filed amount to at least P141 million already, the editorial said. Last month, Romina "Mia" Gonzalez, one of the journalists Arroyo has sued, was nearly arrested in the MalacaƱang press office itself. "She would have spent at least a night in jail if the police had found her there. But it was evident that the attempted arrest was also meant to intimidate her and her media colleagues," the editorial said. Media and journalists' organizations have called for the decriminalization of libel to stop such threats to journalists and to press freedom. While the present libel law remains in force, however, the media must fight back and oppose its use as a tool of harassment and as a means of eroding the constitutionally-protected freedom of the press, the editorial said. "Most if not all of the First Gentleman's libel suits may not prosper. But the subjects of those suits are painfully aware of the context of his actions. They fully remember how Proclamation 1017 allowed the surveillance, harassment and intimidation of journalists and news organizations. Rather than relent, the powerful forces they are confronting continue to assault the autonomy of the press," it added. The editorial said the filing of so many cases against journalists undermines the task of the journalist, so essential to democracy, of monitoring government and holding powerful figures to account. It is in recognition of the damage the Arroyo suits have wreaked that the civil suit is being pursued by the complainants, it said. "But the damage Mr Arroyo's suits against journalists has caused and may further cause is not limited to the erosion of press freedom. They are also a threat to Philippine democracy, given the crucial role of the press in behalf of the sovereign citizenry. This intimidation must be stopped, not only for the sake of press freedom, but for the sake of democracy itself," it said. - GMANews.TV