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PRESIDENT'S HUSBAND WITHDRAWS LIBEL SUITS

Less than a week after he was released from hospital following heart surgery - and on World Press Freedom Day - the husband of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo dropped all libel charges he had filed against Filipino journalists, reports the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and other IFEX members.

On 3 May, Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo withdrew the 11 libel suits he had filed against 46 Filipino journalists since 2003 - totalling more than 70 million Pesos (nearly US$1.5 million) - as a "gesture of peace". Penalties for criminal libel convictions also include jail sentences of six months to six years, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The lawsuits stemmed mostly from stories alleging he was involved in massive corruption, including helping his wife rig the closely contested 2004 election, says CPJ. Last December, 36 members of the Philippine media filed a class action suit against Arroyo for violating press freedom.

"Both in sincere gratitude to a nation that deserves a more harmonious leadership, and as a gesture of peace to the many kind hearts who have helped my family weather this crisis, I have instructed my attorneys to withdraw all the libel suits pending before the courts," he said in a statement.

Two days before the announcement, 60-year-old Arroyo had been discharged from a three-week stint at the hospital after undergoing high-risk open heart surgery. His doctors advised him to "manage his stress," reports CMFR.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) welcomed the news, but says it would rather credit the journalists for pushing back than Arroyo for any change of heart. "Filing 11 cases was the crime. He is not fooling anyone, just as he is not scaring anyone," says SEAPA. "Mike Arroyo remains an enemy of press freedom."

Maritess Vitug, "Newsbreak" editor and one of the libel defendants, said the class action will continue: "We would like this matter to be resolved on its merits. This will provide journalists with parameters on [what is] libel and what it is not."

Visit these links:
- IFEX alerts on Arroyo's libel suits: http://ifex.org/en/content/view/full/83071/
- CMFR: http://www.cmfr-phil.org/
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/ynk8rd
- SEAPA: http://seapabkk.org
(8 May 2007)

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