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Libel complaints against reporters covering corruption scandal in the Philippines

During a protest against government corruption held in Metro Manila on 26 August 2013, demonstrators call for the passing of a Freedom of Information law
During a protest against government corruption held in Metro Manila on 26 August 2013, demonstrators call for the passing of a Freedom of Information law

CMFR

A businesswoman turned fugitive for her alleged involvement in a multi-billion peso corruption scandal filed four separate libel complaints against a blogger, two reporters, two editors and a publisher, as well as a fashion designer, on 6 and 7 August 2013 in Taguig City, Manila. For each complaint, the businesswoman is asking for P10 million (some US$255,000) in damages and attorneys' fees from the respondents.

Libel is a criminal offense in the Philippines. An individual can be imprisoned for as long as six years, fined, or both, if found guilty.

Janet Lim Napoles, against whom a warrant of arrest for illegal detention was issued 14 August, filed libel complaints in the Office of the City Prosecutor in Taguig on 6 August; one against reporter Natashya Gutierrez of the online news site Rappler.com and another against lawyer-blogger Berteni Causing.

Napoles filed two more libel complaints the following day, 7 August. One was against fashion designer Eduardo Baddeo who granted interviews implicating Napoles in the alleged large-scale misuse of government funds, and another against four individuals from the Manila broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer. The respondents indicated in the complaint against Inquirer are publisher Raul Pangalangan; editors Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc and Jose Ma. D. Nolasco; and reporter Gil C. Cabacungan.

The Inquirer released in July a series of reports on a "pork barrel scam" in which fake non-government organizations (NGOs) allegedly misused at least P10 billion (some US$200 million) of public funds sourced from senators, congressmen and local officials in the form of the 'Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF)' or the 'pork barrel fund'. Whistleblowers identified Napoles as the head of several of these fake NGOs and as a major beneficiary.

Gutierrez and Causing both wrote about the "lavish lifestyle" of Napoles' 23-year old daughter Jeane. Causing collected photos from Jeane's social media profiles and blog, while Gutierrez went further by looking at luxury real estate properties in the US listed under Jeane's name and describing their extravagance.

Napoles is asking for a total of P40 million (some US$900,000) in damages and attorneys' fees if the respondents are found guilty, or P10 million from each complaint.

In the libel complaint against Gutierrez and Causing, Napoles said Jeane had to be hospitalized due to the anxiety Gutierrez and Causing's articles supposedly caused her.

On 1 August, Napoles' lawyer, Lorna Kapunan, sent 'cease and desist' letters to the Inquirer and Rappler.

In her letter to Rappler, Kapunan said that "the unethical and malicious behavior of Ms. Gutierrez . . . could be rooted from (sic) jealousy dating back to the time that she was a schoolmate of Ms. (Jeane) Napoles in International School."

In a news report on 6 August, Rappler stood by Gutierrez's reports and asked, "Isn't this accusation of jealousy itself speculative, malicious and libelous?"

"Journalists cannot and should not be intimidated," the Rappler report concluded.

The Inquirer's publisher, editors, and some columnists and reporters received Napoles in their offices on 8 August for a roundtable discussion, a transcript of which the Inquirer published in five parts starting on 11 August.

According to an ABS-CBNnews.com news report, the Makati City Regional Trial Court in Manila issued arrest warrants on 14 August against Napoles and her brother Reynald Lim for the illegal detention of whistleblower Benhur Luy, Napoles's former assistant. Napoles and Lim were still at large as of press time.

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