A fate worse than death:
Jailed for serial libel suits

MA. THERESA Briones thinks it’s bad enough that her father had to spend five years in jail – including two years with hardened criminals – because something he wrote offended someone. But now five libel cases are again hovering over her father’s head, and 22-year-old Theresa can’t help but cry.

Joaquin Briones Jr. is a journalist in Masbate. He was convicted on six counts of libel in 2000, for which he was sentenced to 12 years and six months in jail. After serving almost half of his 12-year, six-month sentence, he applied for and was granted parole in 2005, enabling him to be reunited with his family, which includes Theresa and her four siblings.

Last April 22, however, Masbate Vice Governor Vince Revil filed two libel complaints against Ronnie Valladores, managing editor and columnist of the local paper Masbate Tribune, and Briones as its publisher. More recently, the Masbate Electric Cooperative (Maselco) filed three more libel cases against Briones.

On August 3, Revil also sent a formal complaint regarding Briones. Addressing the Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP), the Masbate official asked that Briones be arrested and recommitted due to the new cases allegedly involving him.

“His wanton disrespect of the law by malicious publications is a clear and imminent threat to the welfare of the community,” wrote Revil. “The cases filed were of the same nature as that wherein he was convicted – libel cases. Clearly, the parolee has not shown that he has reformed.” Singled out

The newly established Masbate chapter of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), however, sees the situation another way. In a statement dated August 18, the NUJP-Masbate chapter said the vice governor had “singled out Briones for retaliation, exploiting the vulnerability of the local publisher’s parole to exact vengeance” for the apparently hard-hitting articles directed at Revil in the Masbate media.

It added that the Briones case is a “perfect example of how the high and mighty in Masbate regard the media” and a “telling commentary on the true nature of many of our local politicians, who see public office not as a public trust but a private endowment.”

As it is, the NUJP-Masbate chapter noted, the killings of two journalists in the island province: broadcaster Nelson Nadura on December 2, 2003 and print reporter Antonio Castillo on June 12, 2009 – remain unsolved.

Reports are still coming in regarding the articles that had upset Maselco and moved it to file libel cases against Briones. The pieces that prompted Revil’s recent action, meanwhile, were published in the February 1-7, 2009 and February 8-14, 2009 issues of the Masbate Tribune. They commented on the supposed failure of the vice governor, who presides over the provincial board meeting, to submit to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) the board’s resolution opposing the operation of any form of thermal or coal-fired power plant in Masbate.

According to the column, the reason given by Revil’s office for its failure to furnish DENR a copy of the resolution was lack of printer ink and faulty printer. This failure reportedly led to the issuance by DENR of an Environmental Clearance Certification (ECC) to the project.Tragic prospect

Briones, however, says that he was no longer publisher of Masbate Tribune at the time the columns about Revil came out. As proof, he presents a deed of quitclaim and waiver of rights dated January 30, 2009, which turned over the control of the paper to local businessman Bonifacio Pepito, who had bought the Tribune for P50,000.

PCIJ tried but failed to contact Revil for further comment for this story. Interestingly, NUJP-Masbate says that Revil’s lawyer is his uncle and counsel of Maselco.

Briones, meanwhile, is also moved to tears over the possibility that he could again be thrown back behind bars. But he says he is confident he would be acquitted of the new charges, and even adds that he wants the cases be allowed to run their course – which is quite surprising given his past entanglements with the country’s libel laws.

Briones began his media career in 1996 as a reporter. Then he joined a radio station and later became a commentator in a program he called “Dos por Dos.” By 1998, he had his own newspaper, which he named after his radio program. But he, too, soon received a thrashing of his own – in the form of 13 libel cases.

Then already based in Manila, Briones had to go back to Masbate to attend the twice-weekly hearings on the cases, for which he also hired a private lawyer. But Briones says that he began to notice that whenever he showed up for the hearings, the complainants would allegedly have these postponed. And when he was unable to come, he says, the hearings pushed through — and an arrest warrant would automatically be issued against him because he was absent.

When he was no longer able to afford a private lawyer, Briones turned to the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) for help. One of the complainants however, filed a motion that disqualified him from availing of PAO services.

Frustrated, Briones says he decided to boycott the subsequent hearings. He later found out that he had already been convicted in five cases and that the period for appeal for these had already lapsed.

Instead of running away, Briones went back to Masbate to serve his sentence. While there, Briones was able to attend the hearings for the rest of the cases, among which one resulted in yet another conviction. The remaining seven were dismissed. Powerless vs poderosoBriones says that at the time, no local journalist dared to write a report favorable to him for fear of reprisal from the complainants, who he described as “poderoso (powerful)” and included provincial directors and board members. He says his media colleagues were even wary of visiting him openly.

For sure, Briones is not the first journalist to languish behind bars because of a libel conviction. Among the more prominent cases is that of Davao broadcaster Alex Adonis, who spent almost two years in prison after being convicted of libel charges filed by the current Speaker of the House Prospero Nograles.

Adonis was granted parole in December 2007 for the Nograles case and posted bail in May 2008 for a second libel case based on the same report, but this time filed by the woman said to be friendly with Nograles. Adonis, however, continued to be kept in the Davao Penal Colony.

In October 2008, Adonis issued a public apology to Nograles, who had reportedly demanded such in return for the journalist’s freedom. It was not until two months later, however, that Adonis was able to finally walk out of prison.

According to human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno, criminal defamation laws impugn both individual and collective rights.

“They unduly restrict not just the individual’s right to liberty and expression but also other basic rights as well,” Diokno writes in a piece included in the book Libel as Politics published by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. “The mere prospect of a criminal libel suit, even without actual prosecution and punishment, is itself abhorrent to individual human rights because of its inevitable chilling effect.” A chilling effect

Similarly, criminal defamation has a chilling effect on collective human rights, he says.

Diokno points out as well that the free flow of information on matters of public concern is crucial to maintaining an informed electorate. “Our laws on criminal libel are so broad and sweeping that they make everyone involved in the delivery of information of public concern a potential criminal,” he says.

Still, there has been a bit of good news of late. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court came out with Administrative Circular No. 8, which stressed the high tribunal’s preference for fines rather than imprisonment for those found guilty of libel.

Under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, libel is punishable with minimum to medium term imprisonment or a fine ranging from P200 to P6,000, or both, in addition to civil action which may be brought by the offended party.

According to Supreme Court Spokesman Jose Midas Marquez, the High Court decided to issue the circular – addressed to judges — after noting that most libel cases filed were committed with “honest intentions.”

Says the court circular: “The judges concerned may, in the exercise of sound discretion, and taking into consideration the peculiar circumstances of each case, determine whether the imposition of a fine alone would best serve the interests of justice or whether forbearing to impose imprisonment would depreciate the seriousness of the offense, work violence on the social order, or otherwise be contrary to the imperative of justice.”

Meantime, Ma. Theresa Briones says she understands the risks involved in her father’s work. She even says that journalism is a good profession and that she wants to become one herself one day.

Her father, however, strongly objects to her ever practicing journalism in Masbate. He says he would rather die than have any of his children work as a journalist there.

“In such a small place,” he says, “you’re just too vulnerable to harassment.” – PCIJ, September 2009

(Editor’s Note: Rowena C. Paraan is PCIJ research director and also serves as a board member of the NUJP.)