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CHR says cyberlibel used to suppress press freedom

CHR says cyberlibel used to suppress press freedom

EXPRESSING concern on how cyberlibel has been used to suppress press freedom, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said the conviction of a Baguio City-based journalist is the most recent case of a pattern of legal actions targeting critics of the government.

Journalist Frank Cimatu was convicted of cyberlibel over charges filed by former Agriculture secretary Emmanuel “Manny” Piñol in 2017, for a reportedly libelous Facebook post in connection with the avian flu crisis.

In a statement, the CHR also expressed concern about how cyberlibel has been used to threaten the right to free expression. It reminded the Philippine government that as a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), it must protect the people’s rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

“When these rights are compromised, especially for journalists and critics, the government also cripples one of its informal feedback mechanisms that serve to inform and improve government policies and decisions,” the CHR said.

The CHR also urged legislators to process Senate Bill (SB) 1593, which seeks to decriminalize libel. It agrees that “libel laws have been used and abused by private parties to advance their various interests, and by public personalities to shield themselves from public scrutiny, even on matters of public concern.”

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Introduced by Sen. Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros, the CHR also noted that SB 1593 also echoes the ICCPR when it states that imprisonment is too harsh a penalty for libel.

“The CHR hopes that the Court of Appeals will consider the above as they handle Cimatu’s case,” the statement said, believing that “instead of suing for libel, the most responsible way for government officials and politicians to deal with criticism is through open discussions and the exercise of transparency.”

The CHR cited Article 19 of the ICCPR that covers not only the freedom of expression but also the right to receive and impart information, especially concerning public affairs.

However, the CHR said the decriminalization of libel requires careful deliberation.

“Though libel can be weaponized against free expression, laws against libel remain one of society’s safeguards against disinformation. The discourse over this bill should thus encompass not only the mentioned rights; it must also remain mindful of facts and truths,” the statement said.

Also suggesting an approach similar to what the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights proposed regarding disinformation, the CHR said guidelines should be established so lawful efforts directed against libel would aim to correct erroneous information, instead of applying legal restrictions.

“Freedom of expression and the prevention of the spread of disinformation both contribute to human rights and must not be seen as conflicting values,” the statement added.

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