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Boxer-politician, former anti-smuggling official sue journalist for libel

UPDATE: Libel suit against journalist dismissed (CMFR, 20 July 2012)

(CMFR/IFEX) - 13 March 2012 - A General Santos-based journalist is facing two libel suits filed separately by world boxing champion and Sarangani province Congressman Emmanuel "Manny" Pacquaio and a former Philippine Anti-Smuggling Group official for allegedly maligning them in a February 2012 article. The complainants are seeking a total of Php93 million (approx. US$2.17 million) in damages. (General Santos City is a chartered city in Mindanao approximately 1,049 kilometers south of Manila.)

The libel suits against journalist Edwin Espejo are based on his February 2012 story in which he described how former PASG-Southern Mindanao chief Mohammad "Bong" Aquia allegedly evaded arrest last 11 February 2012 through the help of Pacquaio. Aquia was supposedly wanted for selling stolen vehicles. News websites Asian Correspondent, Eurasia Review, and MindaNews posted Espejo's report.

In his Php75-million libel complaint, Pacquiao said that "Espejo solely wanted to unjustifiably injure and cause harm to my public image and reputation" and that "a criminal act of harboring a fugitive was imputed against me". Meanwhile, Aquia asked for Php18 million in damages, saying that "Espejo's repeated assertion . . . had caused me enormous shock and awe resulting to countless sleepless nights and besmirched reputation."

In the MindaNews version, Espejo cited a "Journal" report quoting PNP-Highway Patrol Group director Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina as saying that Aquia boarded Pacquiao's car at the General Santos airport to evade arrest and that Aquia stayed at Pacquiao's house in General Santos City and in Sarangani Province.

Espejo told the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) last 9 March 2012 that Pacquiao did not make any effort to reach out to him to clarify his report before he filed the libel case. He also said that Pacquiao had singled him out and has not filed any complaint against Asian Correspondent, Eurasia Review and MindaNews.

CMFR called lawyer Franklin Gacal Jr., chief of staff of congressman Pacquiao, but he declined to be interviewed on the libel suit.

Libel is still a criminal offense in the Philippines despite calls for its decriminalization. In October 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee urged the Philippine government to decriminalize its 82-year old libel law in the country, as the CMFR and some journalists' groups have been urging for nearly two decades.

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