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Columnist, editor post bail re libel case

(CMFR/IFEX) - A newspaper editor and a columnist posted bail of Php10, 000 (approximately USD 234) each for their temporary liberty after the Iloilo City regional trial court (RTC) issued last 11 April 2012 warrants for their arrest in connection with a Php15.2 million libel case filed by the city mayor. Iloilo City is approximately 464 kilometers south of Manila.

Branch 29 of the Iloilo City RTC ordered the arrest of Junep Ocampo, editor-in-chief of The News Today (TNT), and Manuel "Boy" Mejorada, columnist of TNT, in connection with the libel complaint filed by Iloilo City Mayor Jed Patrick Mabilog. The libel complaint was in response to Mejorada's article "Body of Evidence" published in TNT last 8 November 2011.

In the 8 November 2011 article, Mejorada accused Mabilog of misusing the Php2-million (approximately USD 46,930) cash donation received by the Honest and Accountable Living for a Graft-free Iloilo City (Haligi) Foundation from the United Parcel Services (UPS) Foundation in 2008. The fund was supposed to be used for English language teaching competency programs for public school teachers in Iloilo City. Mabilog is the founding chairman and currently serves as chief financial officer while his brother is the present chairman of the foundation.

In his complaint-affidavit filed last 25 November 2011, Mabilog denied the accusation and alleged that the article was designed to defame him and destroy his good reputation and his administration.

In his counter-affidavit, Mejorada said his article was "based on facts and written and published in consonance with respondent's duty as a journalist to expose the truth, and comment on it, no matter how harsh, about the character and behavior of public officials, untainted by malice or intent to libel complainant herein." He added that Mabilog's "denials failed to negate the weight of the documentary evidence" in his possession.

The Iloilo City Prosecutor's Office found probable cause to file libel charges against Mejorada and Ocampo in a resolution dated 3 February 2012. In the four-page resolution, Deputy City Prosecutor Honorio Aragona Jr. found Mejorada's article "libelous and sufficient to hold the respondents liable thereto" until they establish and prove in a full blown trial that the article was written "in good faith and in pursuit of the public good."

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 Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and some journalists' groups have been urging for nearly two decades.

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