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Critical newspaper publisher convicted of libel, sentenced to jail, payment of heavy damages over airport contract coverage

(CMFR/IFEX) - The publisher of a daily newspaper critical of the Arroyo government was found guilty of libel on 5 June 2008 and sentenced to a minimum of six months to a maximum of two years in prison. She was also ordered to pay P5 million (approx. US$113,480) in moral damages and P33,732.25 (approx. US$765) in civil damages.

Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 59 Judge Winlove Dumayas found Ninez Cacho-Olivares, publisher, editor-in-chief and columnist of Manila's "The Daily Tribune", guilty of libel for a 23 June 2003 article, "Firm's Partners Ensure Victory of AEDC." The article alleged that then Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo chose people connected to his own law firm, Carpio Villaraza Cruz (CVC), to handle a complaint by one of its clients against the winning bidder in a controversial build-operate contract for the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal III.

Olivares' lawyer Alexis Medina said that they are weighing their options on whether to file a motion for reconsideration to Dumayas or an appeal to the Court of Appeals. Olivares has posted bail for her provisional liberty.

CVC claimed in a court affidavit that the article "maligned and blackened the reputation" of the firm by "accusing them of being mere influence peddlers, unlawfully manipulating government institutions for their own ends and using their power against the good of the country."

Olivares stood by her story and maintained that it was not libelous. The story was also a matter of grave public interest, Olivares said.

There are 47 other libel cases filed by CVC against Olivares, each case corresponding to a story. Medina said that they have appealed 46 of the cases to the Court of Appeals, asking that they be consolidated into one, while one case is already being heard.

"The Daily Tribune" has been critical of the Arroyo administration since it came to power in 2001. Police operatives raided its office on 25 February 2007 when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency.

CMFR is alarmed by Cacho-Olivares's conviction for libel and her sentencing to a prison term and the payment of such a large damages award.

The six months to two years' imprisonment sentence imposed by Judge Winlove Dumayas of Branch 59 of the Makati Regional Trial Court ignores a Supreme Court memorandum urging the imposition of fines rather than prison terms on journalists convicted of libel.

At the same time however, the damages award that Judge Dumayas has ordered Cacho-Olivares to pay is excessive, and underscores the truth of what CMFR has long argued: that not only libel's being a criminal offense in the Philippines, but also the often excessive fines imposed on journalists, hamper free expression, restrict press freedom, and compromise the democratic dialogue.

Unless overturned, the conviction of Cacho-Olivares escalates the costs of free expression in the Philippines. It ironically comes at a time when the United Nations, precisely on the basis of such Supreme Court initiatives as its memorandum enjoining lower courts not to impose prison sentences in libel cases, has lauded the Philippines for its alleged commitment to human rights.

Congress must now take the necessary steps to amend the libel law. Criminal libel has always been a threat to the free press and free expression in general. The possibility - and, in the case of Davao journalist Alex Adonis, the reality - of imprisonment is a constraint on press reporting and fair comment. The threat of crippling fines has also had the same effect. Both will continue to threaten press freedom and free expression in the Philippines unless libel is decriminalized and a ceiling fixed on fines in libel cases.

Updates the Cacho-Olivares case over coverage of the controversial airport contract: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/52841

For further information on other instances of legal persecution of Cacho-Olivares, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/81153

For further information on the Adonis case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/94086

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