“If you call your opponent a politician, it’s grounds for libel.”
By Alex P. Vidal
NEW YORK CITY — As a community journalist, I am personally saddened by the decision of Pasay City, Philippines Regional Trial Court Branch 188 Presiding Judge Rowena Nieves A. Tan to convict former Iloilo Press and Radio Club president Manuel “Boy” Mejorada for libel.
The case was filed by Senator Franklin Drilon in 2014 after Mejorada, a former Iloilo provincial administrator, criticized the “overpriced” P700-million Iloilo Convention Center (ICC) and the “anomalous” use of the senator’s pork barrel fund in his Iloilo City projects.
A libel case in the Philippines carries a penalty of imprisonment.
A convicted journalist will be cuffed like an ordinary criminal, a blot in the image of a democratic state that prides itself as having the “freest press” in the world.
Mejorada, who lives in Iloilo City, has been sentenced to spend time in prison for up to four years.
If the Motion for Reconsideration to be filed by his lawyer within 15 days since the sentence was out will be denied, a warrant for Mejorada’s arrest is imminent.
He will have to travel from Iloilo City to Pasay City just to be placed behind bars.
This is the kind of “agony” and inconvenience enemies of press freedom would like to happen to purveyors of truth and adherents of transparency in government.
We are worried because Mejorada, who has been a community journalist for more than 30 years now and a senior in media profession, will have to deal with his case in a faraway Pasays City in Metro Manila, considered as “a lion’s den.”
If this could happen to a veteran journalist, any media practitioner who will anger with commentaries and reports powerful and influential political figures in the country like the former senate president, could also suffer the same fate.
In a democratic country like the Philippines, the last thing people would want to see is a news or opinion writer or anchorman being manacled and padlocked in jail for exercising his freedom of speech and expression.
We are aware that a libel case is not supposed to prosper against members of the Fourth Estate in the Philippines.
We are not prejudging the Motion for Reconsideration to be filed by Mejorada in the sala of Judge Tan, and, possibly in the Court of Appeals (CA), but there have been so many Supreme Court rulings in the past that reversed libel convictions involving journalists in the lower courts–from RTC to CA.
Even public officials like Drilon know that in Philippine jurisprudence, no Supreme Court decision was ever decided with finality against newsmen accused of libel.
Even the late former President Corazon Aquino, who hauled to court the late famous journalists Max Soliven and Luis Beltran in one of the most celebrated libel cases in the country, lost in the Supreme Court.