By CHERYLL D. FIEL & EARL O. CONDEZA
DAVAO CITY— “It can happen to any of us. Even because of a mere police story. As long as someone wants to silence you.”
So says multi-awarded journalist and editor-in-chief Stella Estremera after a trial court found her and former publisher Antonio Ajero guilty of libel for publishing an alleged one-sided news article 10 years ago.
Conviction of high-profile journalists like Estremera was the second time in the recent years, following the conviction and nearly five-year jail sentence of radio broadcaster Alexander Adonis of Bombo Radyo.
Davao journalists took cudgels of Estremera and found the “chilling” to the practice of journalism and an attack to press freedom.
The libel conviction “leaves a chilling effect to journalists who usually base reports on police blotters, which are considered public documents and primary source of journalists,” said Jessie Casalda, anchor of Radyo ni Juan AM and chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines Davao City Chapter.
News of the libel conviction came at a time when media killings again rocked the press. Five journalists have been killed in the last two months, including Vergel Bico, 40, editor for the Bandera Pilipino in Calapan City, Mindoro Oriental on Wednesday. Radio commentator Fernando “Nanding” Solijon shot and killed last August 29 in Iligan City. Earlier, newspaper columnists Richard Kho and Bonifacio Loreto were gunned down in Manila last July 30, while two days later freelance photographer Mario Sy was also shot and killed in General Santos City.
Regional Trial Court Branch 18 of Digos City Judge Carmelita Sarno-Davin found Estremera, Ajero and the late managing editor Ely Luciano guilty of libel for “publishing false and malicious imputations” in a story in their paper Sunstar Super Balita on July 8, 2003 citing Baguio Saripada as among the 32 drug pushers who surrendered.
In Davin’s decision penned last December 18, 2012 but only promulgated Tuesday, Saripada was supposed to be a General Services Officer and a “Sultan Sarip of the royal house of Tacurob Puna Bayabao, one of the fifteen royal houses in Mindanao”
In her defense, Estremera said their story was based on a police blotter that provided a list of persons who allegedly surrendered for drug pushing and drug use.
“But the judges were saying that we should have called up each of the 32. Why, do we have to call up all those names in the list? Do we even have access to them? We don’t have it, right?” she said.
In convicting Estremera, Ajero and the deceased Luciano, the court ordered them to pay 200,000 pesos as damages. Saripada is said to have demanded one million pesos from Estremera apart from 50,000 pesos in exemplary fees and the damages.
NUJP Davao chair Casalda reacted on this decision. “Imagine you can be jailed by even just reporting on something that is based on a police report?” he asked.
Estremera found the ordeal of going through a libel case tough, especially that it dragged ten years.
“Now you know what libel harassment can do, yes it could last for ten years,” Estremera said, explaining how the case dragged on including two years when nothing happened, and the case went through different judges.
“For an ordinary journalist, that’s a lot. Lucky that SunStar gave support. I doubt all media companies can give that much support all through out. And you spend a whole day for that, ”she said.
Estremera said she would make an appeal on the decision.
“I want to appeal. Somehow it’s a sample on how a law can be abused. That this gives a face to it, even if you are writing good stories. If somebody wants you punished, it’s possible because the libel law criminalizes it,” she said.
Casalda said NUJP Davao would rally behind Estremera. “It’s time we will again call for the decriminalization of libel, because that is our constant burden as journalists.”
Estremera and Ajero’s libel conviction comes on the heels of another journalist being convicted of libel. Cebu broadcaster and columnist Leo Lastimosa who was convicted by Cebu RTC Branch-14 based on the complaint of former governor now legislator Gwen Garcia.
The NUJP has consistently demanded the decriminalization of Philippine libel laws as it is of the belief that the law has become a tool to harass members of media.
Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) made a landmark ruling that found that the conviction of Adonis on charges of criminal defamation violated the journalist’s right to free expression.
Adonis was charged for libel and convicted for defamation after he reported on an alleged affair between then House Speaker Prospero Nograles, and a married woman in 2001. Six years later, Adonis was sentenced to a prison term of five months to four-and-a-half years and fine of 200,000.
The UNHRC said Adonis’ imprisonment was “incompatible” with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his filing with the UNHRC, Adonis asserted that the libel provisions of the Philippine Revised Criminal Code unreasonably breached upon the right to free speech.
Under Article 353 of the Code, libel is defined as a public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance tending to discredit or cause the dishonor or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead. (Cheryll D. Fiel and Earl O. Condeza/davaotoday.com)libel, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Press Freedom Watch, Stella Estremera, SunStar Davao