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Supreme Court justice sues journalist for libel

(CMFR/IFEX) - An associate justice of the Philippine Supreme Court has filed libel charges against a journalist who wrote about his alleged role in his son's bid for an elected post. This is the first time that a Supreme Court justice has filed a libel case against a journalist. Supreme Court justices have usually used the court's contempt power in similar incidents.

In his 10-page complaint-affidavit, Associate Justice Prebistero Velasco Jr. alleged that the article "SC justice in partisan politics?" by "Newsbreak" news magazine founder and ABS-CBNNews.com editor Maritess Vitug caused "irreparable dishonor, discredit, and contempt" to his family especially his son Lord Allan, who is running for the lone congressional seat in Marinduque province in the upcoming May national elections. Velasco is seeking P1 million (approx. US$ 21,900) in damages. The complaint was filed before the Manila City Prosecutor's Office on 12 March 2010.

The article "SC justice in partisan politics?" discussed the allegation that Justice Velasco has been assisting in his son's congressional bid and the ethical issues involved.

According to the story, Velasco solicited support for his son and asked "at least two local officials to run with his son as councilor and promised to underwrite [their] campaign expenses." It said the local officials declined the Justice's alleged offer. Vitug said in the article that Justice Velasco denied such allegations.

"Ms. Vitug publicly accused me in her "Newsbreak" online article . . . and portrayed me as an unethical person without delicadeza who has wantonly violated the Code of Judicial Conduct and existing laws," Velasco claimed in his complaint. He accused Vitug as "likely (to have been) paid to write the article" by his son's political rival, Edmund Reyes.

"I have inhibited myself from soliciting, directly or indirectly, support for Allan's candidacy, aware as I am that such solicitation constitutes a prohibited partisan political activity," the justice said in his complaint.

The justice quoted the denial by a village official cited by Vitug as one of those who were "offered" to join his son's ticket. "It is not true that Justice Velasco offered me to run as councilor for Torrijos town, Marinduque," Velasco quoted the official's affidavit in his complaint.

In a 15 March 2010 ABS-CBNNews.com report, Vitug said she "went back to the story that was published in December. I found it really fair. I couldn't really find the libelous element in the story. My lawyer said there might be another article (involved) because (he) can't see anything libelous there."

She explained in an ABS-CBNNews.com article that she wrote the story since it was the first time an SC justice's child was running for congress. "How does he help a member of the family running for public office considering that, as a Supreme Court justice, he is really very limited by his profession? That was really the whole point of the story. He missed it," Vitug said.

ABS-CBN 2's Bandila also reported that Vitug proposed that Velasco take a leave of absence if the complaint goes to court. "He may be able to influence the processes in the court so why shouldn't he take a leave of absence while the case is pending?" Vitug told ABS-CBN 2.

The libel complaint came at the same time as the launch of "Newsbreak"'s newest publication, Vitug's "Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court", which looks into the controversies surrounding the highest court in the Philippines. The questioned article is part of the said book. (To find out more about the said publication, please visit http://www.shadowofdoubt.info/ )

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