Withdrawal of the cases—which came because Arroyo was “grateful for surviving a delicate open-heart surgery with a very low survival rate” according to today’s government announcement—shows the cavalier attitude with which the cases were brought in the first place.
In total, Arroyo had sought damages in excess of 70 million pesos (US$1.4 million), according to news reports. Many of the cases were related to allegations in the media that Arroyo helped rig the closely contested 2004 elections—a charge he strongly denied. Penalties for criminal libel convictions in the Philippines also include imprisonment of six months to six years.
“Launching multiple lawsuits against professional journalists was a clear sign that those in power wanted use the country’s legal system to harass journalists who dared challenge the Arroyo administration,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.
In December, 36 journalists filed a counter lawsuit against Arroyo, accusing him of harassing the country’s media. That case is pending. Libel complaints are a favorite tactic of Philippine officials unhappy with critical media coverage. In response to politicians’ use of criminal libel suits, a coalition of more than 600 journalists and 30 local and foreign international media freedom organizations issued a joint petition calling for decriminalization of libel.