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Chief justice's "advisory" discouraging prison sentences for libel convictions provokes debate on his mandate

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Officials of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of Philippine government are debating the wisdom and legality of a circular handed down by the country's chief justice that discourages prison terms for those convicted of libel.

Welcomed by media and free expression advocates, the circular has, however, run up against constitutionalists, triggering discussions as to whether or not the chief justice's "advisory" oversteps the court's mandate, effectively gives special treatment to journalists, preempts Congress in legislation, and - in all instances - violates the Constitution.

On 27 January 2008 President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's legal counsel, Sergio Apostol, asked Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno "to withdraw his circular urging judges to impose fines and not imprisonment as penalty for journalists found guilty of libel", news site Inquirer.net reported. Apostol insisted that the chief justice's circular benefits the press alone, was handed down without benefit of consultations, and strays into actual legislative work that should be the domain of Congress.

Sen. Joker Arroyo, a prominent human rights lawyer, agreed and told Inquirer.net that the chief justice's circular could be "misconstrued unfairly as preempting what Congress should do". Senator Arroyo pointed out that both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the Philippines are considering pending bills aimed at decriminalising libel.

On 25 January, the chief justice had issued a circular advising judges to merely fine, rather than imprison, journalists found guilty of criminal defamation. The advisory was welcomed by rights and media advocates as an important move to shore up free expression and press freedom at a time when the threat of criminal libel is being unscrupulously wielded by powerful politicians - including the president's husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo (see IFEX alerts of 21 January 2008, 30 September, 22 June, 3 May, 21 February, 30, 12 and 8 January 2007, and others).

The circular was issued with the chief justice's contention that in most libel cases a fine "will already satisfy the intent of the law to punish the culprit."

Libel is currently a crime under the Philippines' Revised Penal Code, punishable with a fine or imprisonment, or both. The jail term ranges from a minimum of six months and one day to a maximum of six years; the fine is between P200 (approx. US$5) and P6,000 (approx. US$147).

The Supreme Court, through a spokesperson, has since insisted that the circular merely serves as an advisory to judges hearing libel cases, and has acknowledged that until Congress says otherwise, libel remains a criminal offence in the Philippines. Mr. Apostol and Senator Arroyo, however, said the influence of the chief justice over trial court judges would still effectively give his circular the weight of actual policy or a directive, or, in fact, actual law.

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