Congress urged to act on bill decriminalizing libel

DAVAO CITY — Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate on Monday called on Congress to start deliberating on pending bills calling for the decriminalization of libel and making it a civil case.

Zarate made the call on the same day Rappler CEO and executive director Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted by a Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) over cyberlibel charges.

“Our current libel laws are draconian and repressive. We should not criminalize an act of expressing an opinion, a right guaranteed by the Constitution,” he said.

“We call on Congress to start deliberating on pending bills calling for the decriminalization of libel,” he added.

Zarate said House Bill No. 3455, which he and fellow Bayan Muna Reps. Ferdinand Gaite and Eufemia Cullamat filed before the 18th Congress on August 5, 2019, has been wallowing in the committee level.

The bill was first filed during the 14th Congress by then-Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo, who refiled it in the 15th and 16th Congress.

It was filed as House Bill No. 1008 by Zarate during the 17th Congress before being refiled in the current Congress as HB No. 3455.

“We will work for it when the second regular session resumes,” Zarate told this reporter.

The bill notes that while the current libel law was enacted to protect private citizens from unwarranted damage to reputation, it is now being increasingly used by public officials as “a tool to cow and muzzle an indepentent press.”

“It has become the convenient and predominant way for those in power to harass and silence critical and opposing voices,” the proposed bill says.

It also says the threat to the people’s right to free expression and free press “has even become more serious and real” with the passage of R.A. 10175 or the Cybercrime Law of 2012.

“As part of its sworn duty to uphold and strengthen the democratic rights of the Filipino people, Congress should now repeal the law on libel in order for the press to enjoy the free exercise of its duties and function, and as a corollary, for the people to have an unfettered access to information involving matters of public concern,” the bill says.

It also says decriminalizing libel is in accord with the October 2011 declaration of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), which states that the criminal sanction for libel in the Philippines is “excessive” and in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in which the Philippines is a signatory.

The bill says decriminalizing libel does not mean a person who has been libeled by media can no longer seek redress.

“The victim has the remedy of filing an action for damages based on the Civil Code of the Philippines,” it says.

The bill says the Civil Code should be enough “to remind the media of their duties to respect the dignity, personality, privacy, and pace of mind of others, otherwise they may be held civilly liable for damages thereof.”

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