Trillanes vs Nieto case underscores need to decriminalize libel

Blogger RJ Nieto with Pres. Duterte. Photo from Nieto's Facebook page.

In the press statement of Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV on the indictment of blogger Rey Joseph “RJ” Nieto for cyber libel, he said, “Nieto will now be brought to trial and face a penalty of at least prision correccional or imprisonment from 6 months to one year to 6 years should he be adjudged guilty of libel.”

This is what we have been fighting against without much success – the decriminalization of libel.

Not only did we lose the fight to decriminalize libel before the Supreme Court, Republic Act No. 10175 (The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012) even increased the penalty. For computer-related libel, the minimum punishment was raised twelve-fold, from six months to six years. The maximum punishment is doubled from six to twelve years in prison.

We recognize that the libel law has its merits - it’s a check against irresponsible reporting and abuse of the freedom of expression- but it should be downgraded into a civil offense.

We share the position that while it is the right of individuals to be protected from unethical and irresponsible journalism, imprisonment that will deprive a person of a means to earn a living, is not a just penalty.

We will continue to work for the decriminalization of libel because we believe libel as a crime works against freedom of expression that the Constitution guarantees to every Filipino. But the law is there and we have to abide by it.

The Pasay City Prosecutor’s Office found basis in the complaint filed by Trillanes against Nieto who runs the blog “Thinking Pinoy” wherein he wrote on October 31, 2017 that “Trump calls Trillanes drug lord.”

Nieto further wrote : “US President Donald J. Trump reportedly called Senator Antonio ‘Sonny’ F. Trillanes IV a ‘Narco’, a colloquial word for a ‘drug baron’ or ‘drug lord’. Does Trump’s government know something?”

That Facebook post generated 62,000 reactions and 15,759 shares as of Nov. 21, 2017.

The Prosecutors’ office led by Honey Rose E. Delgado, associate prosecution attorney II, said verification they conducted revealed that Trump never made such statements against Trillanes.

The Prosecutors’ office said Nieto did not file a counter-affidavit during the preliminary investigation of the case.

In indicting Nieto for Cyber-libel, the Prosecutors said what Nieto wrote contained all the elements of libel which are publication (sharing with others); identifiability; imputation of vice, defect or crime; and malice.

“It is true that a public official, more especially an elected one, should not be onion skinned. Strict personal discipline is expected of an occupant of a public office because a public official is a property of the public. He is looked upon to set the example how public officials should correctly conduct themselves even in the face of extreme provocation. However, this should not be an excuse for anyone to make baseless lies and make up stories against any public official, especially so when there is no good intention or justifiable motive for doing so,” the prosecutors said.

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV

Trillanes said “This should serve as a warning for Mr. Nieto and other Duterte bloggers to stop peddling lies, as part of their propaganda. Their activities reflect the kind of administration that they support. Sooner or later, they will all be accountable for their actions.”

Nieto, an avid supporter of President Duterte, was employed by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano as consultant at the Department of Foreign Affairs.


Update on the fight of Mike Arroyo, husband of former President Gloria Arroyo against journalists:

In 2006, Arroyo filed libel suits against43 journalists (including yours truly) whose articles he did not like. We fought back and sued him for obstructing freedom of the press.

In May 2007, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, after he suffered a heart attack, he withdrew the suits “as a gesture of peace.”

We welcomed Arroyo’s withdrawal of the libel cases but we continued with the case against him. He challenged our basis for filing the civil suit.

This is an update on the case from our lawyer, Romel R. Bagares: “ We won the point all the way to the Supreme Court, which held that the journalists had a cause of action against him over his indiscriminate filing of libel suits. The case was remanded to the Makati City Regional Trial court for further proceedings, and where it is undergoing mediation.”


Government attacks against the media: an updated timeline

Media watchdogs say it's part of the Duterte administration's attacks against Philippine media.

VERA FILES FACT SHEET: What is malice in libel cases?

It comes in two forms: malice in law and malice in fact.

VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Use of ‘alleged’ not a defense against libel

PCOO Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson is wrong.

About Vera Files

Founded in March 2008, VERA Files is published by veteran Filipino journalists taking a deeper look into current Philippine issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

Follow us