Philippine court convicts journalist of cyber libel

BenarNews staff
Philippine court convicts journalist of cyber libel Filipino journalist Frank Cimatu (left, front) participates in a protest rally in Baguio City, northern Philippines, Feb. 23, 2017.

A Philippine court on Tuesday convicted a Filipino journalist of cyber libel, a ruling that human rights groups described as a setback to press freedom.

The decision against journalist Frank Cimatu, who is based in the northern mountain city of Baguio, has revived debate on the criminalization of libel in the Philippines, with critics saying it has been used increasingly to stifle political dissent.

The verdict of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 93 stemmed from a 2017 complaint filed by former Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol, after Cimatu posted on his Facebook account that the official “got rich by P21-M [21 million pesos] in six months.”

“Following a painstaking review of the pieces of evidence presented by both parties, the court finds that the evidence of the prosecution satisfies the test of moral certainty and is sufficient to support a conviction,” Acting Presiding Judge Evangeline Cabochan-Santos said in her 19-page decision.

The court found Cimatu’s Facebook post was defamatory, and sentenced him to six years in prison while ordering him to pay a fine of 300,000 pesos (U.S. $5,379).

It said that Cimatu acted with malice because he “failed to show any proof to establish that his post was done in good faith.”

In court, Cimatu said his post was made private and was meant to be seen only by his Facebook friends, a claim the court did not agree with.

The court allowed Cimatu to post bail. He said he plans to appeal to the high court.

 “This was a long-drawn case that [went on for] five years. … In the end, it’s emotionally and morally draining but the fight goes on,” Cimatu told BenarNews on Tuesday.

“As a journalist, I believe that we have to decriminalize libel especially when the law is weaponized on us. … But we still have to fight. We hope to craft our appeal before the year ends.”

Piñol’s office did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment.

A literary author as well, Cimatu is the third journalist connected with news outfit Rappler who has been sentenced on cyber libel charges. He has been a contributor for Rappler, whose founder and chief executive Maria Ressa, was convicted in June 2020 along with researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr.

The case stemmed from a May 2012 report that exposed a former chief justice’s alleged links to businessmen, including Filipino-Chinese businessman Wilfredo Keng. The court ruled Ressa and Santos maligned Keng’s reputation.

Ressa, a staunch critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte, is out on bail pending the Supreme Court’s ruling on her case. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, along with Russian editor Dmitry Muratov.

She repeatedly has said that her conviction of cyber libel was a vendetta by Duterte to silence her and the online news entity’s coverage of the president’s drug war that critics said had left thousands dead from 2016 to 2022.

Ruling ‘undermines freedom of expression’

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) condemned the court’s ruling against Cimatu, saying it went against democratic principles.

“A powerful politician such as Piñol crying foul over a Facebook post of a community journalist is ironic in a supposed democratic country. Under the comments on the same post, Piñol himself issued threats and derogatory remarks against Cimatu,” the NUJP said.

“Cimatu's case is proof of how government officials use libel as a weapon to harass and intimidate journalists.”

Carlos Conde, a senior Philippine researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the ruling concerns his organization.

“The conviction of Cimatu, as with many other such court rulings, undermines freedom of expression in the Philippines. Most important, this underscores the necessity to decriminalize libel, including cyber libel,” Conde said.

“Lawmakers who value freedom of the press and expression should work to amend the country's Revised Penal Code to make libel a civil offense and also to amend the cyber-libel law to reflect the same thing. No one should spend a day in jail for expressing an opinion or reporting on the news.”

Aie Balagtas-See and Basilio Sepe in Manila, Jojo Riñoza in Dagupan, northern Philippines, and Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, southern Philippines, contributed to this report.


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