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Court temporarily stops class action suit by journalists against president's husband

(CMFR/IFEX) - The class action suit filed by 40 journalists and three media organizations against presidential spouse Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo for his alleged abuse of the right to litigate and violation of press freedom had not even reached the pre-trial stage a year after it was filed. Both sides had been locked in an argument over legal technicalities. But in a decision dated 24 September 2007, the Court of Appeals granted Mr. Arroyo's request for a preliminary injunction on the hearing of the affirmative defenses, thus putting the case on hold.

The class action suit was filed against Mr. Arroyo on 28 December 2006 in response to the numerous libel suits - 11 against 46 journalists - he had filed against media practitioners since 2003. Libel is a criminal offence in the Philippines.

"(P)etitioner's application for a writ of preliminary injunction is granted . . . enjoining respondents, their agents and anybody acting in their behalf from continuing with the preliminary hearing on the affirmative defenses based on the amended complaint," the decision, signed by Court of Appeals Justice Fernanda Lampas Peralta stated.

The decision also said it would be injurious to Mr. Arroyo if the hearing on the affirmative defenses were to be continued.

"Based on the pleadings submitted, the possibility of irreparable injury to petitioner (Mr. Arroyo) has been shown, at least tentatively or provisionally, to justify the restraint on the subject hearing on the affirmative defenses based on the amended complaint. Said preliminary hearing or its continuance will unduly expose petitioner to the rigors of trial in the case below even before the jurisdictional issues raised in the present petition are resolved," the decision stated.

Harry Roque, the lawyer for the journalists in the case, expressed befuddlement over the decision since it was actually Mr. Arroyo who asked presiding judge Zenaida Laguilles of the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) for a hearing on the affirmative defenses.

On 6 February 2007, Roque filed an opposition to the RTC to Mr. Arroyo's motion to set the case for preliminary hearing on affirmative defenses. Mr. Arroyo's two points in his affirmative defense state that the RTC has no jurisdiction over the case because the plaintiffs did not pay the correct amount of docket fees, and that the plaintiffs have no cause of action because not all of the complainants were libeled by Mr. Arroyo.

Ruy Rondain, Mr. Arroyo's lawyer, argued that the plaintiffs were not able to post the docket fee of P9 million each. The complainants are asking for P12.5 million (US$276,600) in damages, but Rondain noted that the word "each" is written in the final complaint, indicating that each complainant, 36 individual journalists and three media organizations, sought to be given P12.5 million, with total charges amounting to P487.5 million (US$10.78 million). There were 36 individual journalists in the complaint filed on 28 December 2006, but four more joined the suit, which was then added in the complaint's amended version. The media organizations include the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), which has been calling for the decriminalization of libel since 1990.

Roque had filed a motion to amend the complaint on 6 February 2007 asking for the word "each" to be replaced with "aggregate" so as "to make the words of the Complaint conform squarely with the intention of the Plaintiffs to claim damages for the Philippine press as a unified institution."

Rondain, however, in his reply filed on 2 March 2007, stated that it is "difficult to believe that plaintiffs, all seasoned journalists who claimed they read the complaint before verifying it, would also miss that supposed 'typo'." Rondain also stated that "the bottom line is that plaintiffs intended to mislead to save on docket fees."

Laguilles, however, in an order dated 16 March 2007, granted Roque's motion to amend the complaint and Rondain's motion to set the case for hearing on the affirmative defenses.

Roque said he is considering whether to simply comply with the Court of Appeals decision or file a motion for clarification.

The class action suit is the first of its kind in the Philippines and hopes to prevent other government officials from harassing journalists and eroding press freedom through the whimsical use of the Philippine libel law.

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