Press Release
October 1, 2008

Decriminalizing libel should go hand in hand with right to reply -- Pimentel

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Q. Pimentel, Jr. today urged Congress to stop dilly-dallying on the bill decriminalizing libel which has been proposed a long time ago to make the law less harsh for journalists who are punished for reports that are unfair and defamatory to certain individuals.

Pimentel said while the Supreme Court has spared journalists from jail terms in its recent decisions involving libel cases, the fate of the measure to decriminalize libel remains uncertain in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

However, he said he is glad that the Senate committee on constitutional amendments and revision of laws has started public hearings on the proposal.

The minority leader said the justification for the decriminalization of libel has been strengthened when Chief Justice Reynato Puno early this year issued a circular advising judges all over the country to refrain from imposing jail sentences on journalists and other persons convicted of libel.

The Chief Justice in his circular noted that in most libel cases, journalists made mistakes with honest intentions. Therefore, he said journalists who commit such offense need not be penalized with imprisonment and the payment of a fine "would already satisfy the intent of the law to punish the culprit."

Pimentel said Puno stated that the circular was meant to be an "interim measure" to aid members of the judiciary in handling libel suits pending the passage by Congress of the law decriminalizing libel.

"The Puno circular should help legislators in resolving doubts over the propriety of modifying the country's outmoded libel law," Pimentel said.

Libel is defined under the Revised Penal Code as "a public and malicious imputation of a crime, vice or defect, whether real or not, tending to cause the dishonor of a person or to blacken the memory of the dead."

Pimentel stressed that the decriminalization of libel should go hand in hand with a related measure: the right of reply that can be availed of by people who are unduly criticized or maligned by the media.

The measure is embodied in Senate Bill 2l50 which has already been approved on third and final reading by the Senate but is still awaiting passage by the House.

The bill provides that "all persons who are accused directly or indirectly of any crime or offense or are criticized by innuendo or rumor for any lapse in behavior in public or private life shall have the right to reply to the charges published in newspapers and other publications or to criticisms over radio, television, website or through any electrical device."

Some members of the media are wary of the right to reply proposal for fear that it may infringe on their discretion to decide on what items to publish or air in the newspapers or broadcast networks.

"The bill will in fact widen the freedom of expression by obliging the media to provide space to the response and explanation of persons to media reports or commentaries that are inaccurate, unfair or biased against them and injurious to their reputation," Pimentel pointed out.

He said the publication or airing of the side of the aggrieved parties will enhance the credibility of the media outfits concerned and at the same time eliminate a source of friction or conflict that will cause troubles to the journalists concerned.

Such conflict, according to Pimentel, usually prompts the aggrieved parties to file a libel case against the defaulting journalists. But in extreme cases, he said the offended persons, especially if they are moneyed and powerful, go to the extent of hiring mercenaries to harass or even kill the journalists.

Ultimately, he said it is the media practitioners themselves who will benefit from the enactment of the right of reply.

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