Philippine journalists denounce lawsuits

(AP) MANILA, Philippines – Philippine media groups on Tuesday accused the president’s husband of trying to muzzle a critical press by filing a string of libel cases against 43 journalists and publishers.

The National Union of Journalists denounced arrest warrants issued this week for a former opposition senator and the publisher and chief reporters of Malaya, a daily newspaper critical of President Gloria Macapagal. The arrest warrants stem from libel cases filed by the president’s husband, Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo in 2004.

A total of 43 reporters, columnists, editors, publishers and a subscription manager are facing lawsuits filed by Mike Arroyo over the last two years. The cases mostly concern stories on corruption and electoral fraud allegations against the president and her husband.

More than 600 Filipino reporters and foreign journalists have signed a petition calling for the decriminalization of libel and criticizing “the propensity of public officials and figures like Mr. Arroyo of using our outdated laws to muzzle a critical press,” said the union, the country’s largest media group.

Under a 105-year-old law, people can be fined or sentenced to prison for libel. However, no journalist has been sentenced to prison for libel in recent years.

Mike Arroyo’s spokeswoman, Juris Soliman, denied the libel suits were intended to muzzle the media and said the articles in question were written with malice.

“The first gentleman just wants to tell them to stop lying,” she said. “Journalism is about telling the truth, not inventing stories.”

She said Mike Arroyo would not have filed libel cases if the stories had addressed legitimate issues rather than attacking the reputations of the president and her husband.

Vergel Santos, chairman of the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, wrote in a Web log that the lawsuits could only be intended to “harass and intimidate, to send a chilling sensation across the profession.”

Malaya reporter Ellen Tordesillas, who posted bail on Monday, said the lawsuits were meant to stop journalists from criticizing him.

The case against her and eight other Malaya staffers stems from a story that quoted an opposition senator alleging Mike Arroyo headed operations to rig the 2004 presidential elections to favor his wife.

President Arroyo has survived two impeachment attempts over allegations of corruption and vote rigging. Tordesillas said election fraud was a legitimate news subject because it undermines democracy.

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