• NUJP said journalists should not be put behind bars for what they write
  • Sen. Hontiveros said Philippine libel laws were being 'weaponized'
  • Hontiveros filed the bill the same day when Frank Cimatu was convicted of cyber libel

A journalist group welcomed the bill filed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros that seeks to decriminalize libel. National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) President Jonathan de Santos said the group has been campaigning for the movement for decades/

"This bill filed by Senator Hontiveros is very welcome. We have been campaigning for this for decades," Jonathan de Santos said in an interview with ABS-CBN News Wednesday.

De Santos explained the journalist organization believes criminal libel "is incompatible with principles we hold as a country," considering that the Philippines is a democracy, but arrests are made on people who report on events or exercise freedom of expression.

Jonathan de Santos, also The Philippine Star news editor, further clarified that the misdeeds of journalists should not go unpunished, and that journalists "should not be jailed for what you write." De Santos noted the NUJP believes imprisonment for "exercising your freedom of expression" was "too much of a punishment."

Sen. Hontiveros filed Senate Bill No. 1593 on Dec. 13, proposing legislation that seeks 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 the freedom of the press. We need to decriminalize libel if we are to truly defend press freedom," the senator said.

Sen. Hontiveros also argued with the widespread increase of fake news on social media, media men should be protected. "If we fail to do so, if we allow our laws to punish rather than protect the press, we chip away at our Constitutional rights. This will cost us our democracy," the former congresswoman added.

The bill was filed on the same day Rappler correspondent Frank Cimatu was convicted of cyber libel over a Facebook post addressed towards former Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol in 2017.

Acting Presiding Judge Evangeline Cabochan-Santos said Cimatu's Facebook post in 2017 that Piñol, who was then chief of the Department of Agriculture (DA), "got rich by P21-M (approximately $376,100) in 6 months," was defamatory.

The NUJP and media company Rappler swiftly released statements in support of Cimatu, reiterating earlier calls to decriminalize libel as criminal libel was being used to target journalists exercising press freedom "in relation to public officials."

Hontiveros isn't the first lawmaker to file a bill backing the decriminalization of libel.

In July, days after the Court of Appeals affirmed the cyber libel conviction of Rapper CEO and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and a former researcher-writer for the online news site, Rep. France Castro, Rep. Arlene Brosas and Rep. Raoul Manuel refiled House Bill No. 1769 seeking the decriminalization of libel to allow the media to continue exercising its functions.

The co-authors noted that the Philippines' libel law "has resulted in the prevalence of onion skins amongst government officials and public figures."

In 2014, then-Sen. Ralph Recto filed Senate Bill No. 2146. At the time, the Senate released a statement, noting that Recto "traced the origins of libel as a tool against criticisms and to shield public officials from insults."

Recto also called on Congress to revisit defamation-related laws and revamp the said laws in such a way that malicious and unfounded attacks against an individual's reputation were penalized "without stifling free speech and the open discussion of policies that affect the public."

Last month, Sen. Raffy Tulfo, a broadcaster himself, extended support to the decriminalization of libel only for "legit" journalists.

The Canadian Embassy in the Philippines also called on the country to decriminalize libel by taking "appropriate steps to amend the Revised Penal Code and the Cybercrime Prevention Act."

Sen. Risa Hontiveros
Sen. Risa Hontiveros filed the Senate bill to decriminalize libel on the same day journalist Frank Cimatu was convicted of cyber libel. Risa Hontiveros official Facebook page