CPJ condemns ‘roundup’ of Philippine journalists in Arroyo case

New York, October 19, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the arrests of nine Philippine journalists with the English-language daily Malaya in connection with a criminal libel suit filed by Jose Miguel Arroyo, husband of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Manila Regional Trial Court Judge Silvino Pampilo on Monday ordered the arrests of publisher Amado Macasaet; editors Enrique Romualdez, Joy de los Reyes, Teresa Molina, and Minnie Advincula; reporters Ellen Toresillas, J.P. Lopez, and Regina Bengco; and columnist Francisco Tatad.

The defendants posted bail of 10,000 pesos (about US$200). Penalties for libel in the Philippines include fines up to 6,000 pesos (US$120) and imprisonment of six months to six years, according to news reports and local press freedom groups. The court has not set a trial date.

The charges stem from a May 19, 2004, article written by Tatad, a former senator and political opponent of the president, alleging that the president’s husband attempted to rig the 2004 presidential elections in favor of his wife, according to news reports. Malaya also ran a story in May of this year that included excerpts from Tatad’s commentary, according to those reports. The three reporters were apparently named in connection with news coverage citing the commentary.

Arroyo narrowly won the election, but questions about the validity of the results lingered in the national headlines.

“We call on Jose Arroyo to immediately drop these criminal libel charges against Malaya journalists,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “This case amounts to a wholesale roundup of journalists because a public figure was offended by criticism. Arroyo’s actions discredit the country and undermine the tradition of press freedom in the Philippines.”

Philippine politicians are increasingly using criminal libel suits to respond to media criticism. Arroyo’s husband has filed criminal libel suits against 43 journalists in recent months, according to information compiled by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

On October 2, a regional court in Luzon-Sud province issued arrest warrants for 10 journalists, editors, and publishers from the Asian Star and Asian Star Express Balita in connection with a criminal libel suit filed by the province’s governor, Erineo Maliksi. Those cases are pending.