Bangkok, December 14, 2022 – Philippine authorities should not contest the appeal of journalist Frank Cimatu, and should stop filing spurious cyber libel charges against members of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, December 13, a Quezon City court convicted Cimatu, a contributor to the independent news outlet Rappler, of cyber libel over a 2017 Facebook post by the journalist about alleged corruption by then Agriculture Secretary Manny Pinol, news reports said.
The court ordered Cimatu to serve a prison term ranging from six months and one day to a maximum of five years, five months, and 11 days, according to those reports, which said he was also fined 300,000 pesos (US$5,385) in moral damages.
Cimatu is free on bail and will appeal the ruling, according to news reports, which said he could appeal as high as the Supreme Court.
“The spurious charge against Filipino journalist Frank Cimatu should be dropped and authorities should start work immediately on decriminalizing libel and overhauling the overbroad cybercrime provisions that allow for these kinds of outrageous convictions,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “The wanton abuse of cyber libel laws is killing press freedom in the Philippines.”
In a 19-page ruling, Judge Evangeline Cabochan-Santos wrote that Cimatu’s Facebook post, which alleged that Pinol had personally profited from state corruption, was defamatory and appeared to impute a crime, reports citing the ruling said. The ruling said Cimatu made the post in malice and “failed to show any proof to establish that his post was done in good faith.”
Cimatu reportedly argued that the post was private and was only seen by his Facebook friends, but the court ruled it was initially made under a public setting, news reports said. CPJ was unable to review Cimatu’s Facebook account, which has been taken down or set to private.
NewsLine Philippines reported that Cimatu’s Facebook post was referencing a report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism about Pinol’s personal asset and liability declaration. Cimatu covers a wide range of political and other news topics from the northern region of the main Philippine island of Luzon, his Rappler profile shows.
Pinol, a former news broadcaster, filed the charges against Cimatu, according to those reports. CPJ was unable to find contact information for Pinol.
Cimatu is at least the third Rappler reporter to be convicted of cyber libel, along with Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa and ex-Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. Their appeal of a 2020 cyber libel conviction was rejected in October and is now pending at the Supreme Court. CPJ has repeatedly called for the charges to be dropped.
CPJ emailed the Quezon City prosecutor’s office for comment but did not receive any reply.