Journalists call to decriminalize libel and defend press freedom after Baguio journalist Frank Cimatu was convicted of cyber libel by a Quezon City court over his 2017 Facebook post about former Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Manny Piñol.
In a 19-page decision, QC Regional Trial Court Branch 93 found Cimatu "guilty beyond reasonable doubt" and sentenced him to imprisonment of six months and one day to five years, five months, and 11 days. The court also ordered the Rappler journalist to pay Piñol P300,000 as moral damages.
According to presiding judge Evangeline Cabochan-Santos, the post in question read "Agri Sec. got rich by 21 M in 6 months. Bird flu pa more!" adding that this "made it appear" that Piñol was committing corruption.
“Taking into consideration the words used by Cimatu and the subject Facebook post which appears to be an imputation of a crime, the same is defamatory and thus, satisfy the first element of the crime of Cyberlibel,” the decision stated.
Cimatu argued that the said Facebook post was limited to friends, and not to be seen by the public. However, this was deemed immaterial as the post was initially shared publicly. The court saw a globe icon indicating that the post was public in the evidence pre-trial.
"In addition, it bears emphasizing that the prosecution was able to show that the subject Facebook post had 210 reactions, 25 shares with several comments, as evidenced by the screenshot of the subject Facebook post," it read.
Piñol reportedly read the post and left a comment explaining his side.
The ruling done by the lower court can still be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
'Decriminalize libel' and '#HoldTheLine'
Cimatu told CNN Philippines that he thought the case was "long-drawn" and took "a lot of time and effort."
“As a journalist, I believe that we have to decriminalize libel especially when the law is weaponized on us,” he said to the outlet. “We hope to craft our appeal before the year ends.”
The journalist shared that he was followed and "pestered" by Piñol's followers, causing him to be careful with his posts. Despite this, he said he would "not be dissuaded."
Cimatu would be the third Rappler journalist convicted of cyber libel, following the company's CEO and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa and former writer Reynaldo Santos Jr.
Since the conviction, Rappler as well as other organizations rallied behind Cimatu and also called for libel to be decriminalized.
"This is another example of the weaponization of the cybercrime law to harass and intimidate journalists. We stand behind Frank Cimatu, and together, we #HoldTheLine," Ressa said.
"A THREAT TO PRESS FREEDOM IS A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY. An attack on one is an attack on all. No one should be silenced for being critical on the most pressing issues," Rappler tweeted, posting a photo that states "decriminalize libel."
A THREAT TO PRESS FREEDOM IS A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY— Rappler (@rapplerdotcom) December 13, 2022
An attack on one is an attack on all. No one should be silenced for being critical on the most pressing issues. https://t.co/cLMeMNbIWj #CourageON #HoldTheLine #FactsFirstPH pic.twitter.com/CKOlIeGl4l
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) also issued a statement condemning the use of cyber libel against Cimatu.
"With due respect to the court's decision, NUJP maintains the right to free expression and press freedom is paramount especially when exercised in relation to public officials," the organization said.
"A powerful politician such as Piñol crying foul over a Facebook post of a community journalist is ironic in a supposed democratic country. Under the comments on the same post, Piñol himself issued threats and derogatory remarks against Cimatu. Online trolls flooded Cimatu's Facebook account with vitriol."
On the same day, Dec. 13, Sen. Risa Hontiveros filed a bill in Senate seeking to decriminalize libel.
"Our libel laws have been weaponized to stifle very basic fundamental rights. These laws have been used to constantly attack many of our freedoms, but particularly freedom of the press. We need to decriminalize libel if we are to truly defend press freedom," the senator said in a statement.