Philippine editor draws prison term on libel conviction

New York, June 5, 2008—A Philippine court today convicted newspaper editor and publisher Ninez Cacho-Olivares on libel charges stemming from a 2003 article about a politically prominent lawyer, according to news reports.

The regional court in Makati, outside the capital, Manila, sentenced Cacho-Olivares to an indeterminate prison sentence of six months to two years and ordered her to pay 5 million pesos (US$113,700) in damages, according to local news reports. Cacho-Olivares posted bail and her lawyer will appeal the conviction, the reports said.

“We condemn the prison sentence given to Ninez Cacho-Olivares and hope that the conviction is overturned on appeal,” said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “It is high time for a democratic country like the Philippines to remove the threat of imprisonment for journalists by decriminalizing libel.”

Cacho-Olivares’ article, which appeared in The Daily Tribune of Manila in June 2003, included purported transcripts of conversations between lawyer Arthur Villaraza and a German building company seeking an airport terminal contract. The article alleged that Villaraza and his firm tried to extort money from the company—an assertion the lawyer and the firm denied. Cacho-Olivares defended the article, according to reports. Forty-seven additional libel complaints, all filed by Villaraza’s law firm, are still pending against her, according to the Web site of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Villaraza represented President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as recently as 2005, according to The Associated Press. Public figures in the Philippines have frequently used criminal libel charges against reporters who criticize their activities, according to CPJ research.

Cacho-Olivares is a well-known critic of the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, which lodged sedition charges against her and two of her columnists in February 2007. The cases are pending. Police also raided the Tribune offices during a state of emergency that Macapagal-Arroyo declared in 2006.

In a separate case, radio commentator Alex Adonis is serving a prison term of four and a half years on a libel conviction, local press freedom groups say. Journalists protested Tuesday at the jail where he is being held in Davao del Norte province after a warden refused to release him on bail, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. Adonis, jailed in February 2007, was granted bail on May 27 of this year but a prison official said he needed to inform “higher correctional authorities” before authorizing the journalist’s release, the Inquirer reported.