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Former president sues Manila newspaper

(CMFR/IFEX) - On 17 September 2009, deposed president Joseph "Erap" Estrada filed a libel complaint against a Manila-based broadsheet for a report on his alleged coercion of a businessman in 1998.

Libel is a criminal offence in the Philippines. Media groups have been calling for the decriminalisation of libel, which has been abused by several powerful politicians and personalities to intimidate the press.

Estrada was removed from office in 2001 and convicted of plunder in 2007. He was pardoned by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2008 after talks between him and her allies.

Estrada filed a libel complaint against the "Philippine Daily Inquirer" for its 16 September 2009 front page banner story "Estrada bullied me, says Yuchengco: Taipan confirms coercion in PLDT (Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company) deal" ( ). Inquirer publisher Isagani Yambot, editor-in-chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc and reporters Christine Avendaño, Doris Dumlao and Daxim Lucas were named as respondents in the complaint filed before the prosecutor's office of San Juan City. Alfonso Yuchengco was also included in the libel complaint.

Estrada served as the mayor of San Juan City for almost two decades. His son, Joseph Victor Ejercito, now serves as its mayor.

In the article in question, the "Philippine Daily Inquirer" reported a Yuchengco statement that he was coerced by the Estrada government into selling the shares of his company, the Philippine Telecommunication Investment Corp. (PTIC), in the PLDT to First Pacific Co. represented by Manuel Pangilinan in 1998. Yuchengco's statement confirmed an earlier claim by former national police chief, now senator, Panfilo Lacson.

Yuchengco's statement came a day after Lacson delivered a speech on the deposed president's allegedly illegal acts during his administration. Estrada was president from 1998 to February 2001. Lacson was a former supporter of Estrada's and served as chief of the Philippine National Police and head of the Presidential Anti-Organised Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) during Estrada's administration.

On 18 September 2009, "The Philippine Star" quoted Estrada's complaint as alleging that "all the elements of the crime of libel are present in this case. The defamatory statements of respondent Yuchengco and their publication by the 'Philippine Daily Inquirer' were meant to destroy my integrity and reputation and ill-timed to derail my political goals" ( ).

Other news organisations also reported Yuchengco's statement, but Estrada sued only the "Philippine Daily Inquirer". The "Philippine Daily Inquirer" and Estrada have been at odds since 1998 when Estrada accused the newspaper of being biased against him. Estrada later instigated an ad boycott against the newspaper.

In its 18 September issue, the "Philippine Daily Inquirer" said it had yet to receive a copy of the libel complaint filed by Estrada, but it firmly asserted that there was no malice in its 16 September report. "The story was a fair and true report of an issue vested with public interest," the newspaper said in its statement ( ).

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