In filing a libel case against journalist Roger Balanza and publisher Edgar Velez of the weekly Durian Post, House Speaker Prospero Nograles is giving us a glimpse of how things would be for freedom of speech in the city if he wins the mayoralty race. Government officials, by virtue of their very public lives, are expected to be a little less sensitive to opinions expressed by the media because they are legitimate objects of bad press; that is why the media are called watchdogs. Democracy recognizes that public officials ought to be placed under closer scrutiny and louder criticism so as to keep them from running away with the powers they hold. Nograles, however, has shown himself unable to take such negative appraisals and has filed a number of libel cases against journalists he feels have maligned his reputation.
Libel, of course, is a legal remedy one may resort to in cases in which one feels maligned and mistreated verbally; no one begrudges Nograles that right. The problem is that unlike most other countries, libel is still a criminal offense in the Philippines, punishable by time in prison. There are several measures pending before Congress to decriminalize libel, and these have even been consolidated in one House bill (5760), but under Nograles’ watch this measure has not moved much. Indeed, it feels like members of Congress are deliberately keeping libel as an ace against nosy journalists, a sword they can keep hanging over their heads to keep them at bay or make them toe the line.
The funny thing is that while Congress itself is not willing to decriminalize libel, the Supreme Court is eager to keep journalists safe from the threat of suffering the full penalties. In January last year Chief Justice Reynato Puno issued a circular urging judges to impose fines instead of prison terms as a penalty for libel. So while Balanza and Velez can rest in the thought that they will probably not do time if they are convicted, freedom of speech itself is taking another blow and all media professionals in Davao City have been given notice. We call on our public officials, not just Nograles, to be more open to criticism especially during this political season and set the stage for true freedom of speech. Democracy depends on it.