Senator seeks prison ban for libel
Threat of jail restricts freedom of expression, he says
University journalists rally for press freedom (photo by Rene Sandajan)
A senator is seeking to decriminalize libel and end prison sentences that he says restrict freedom of expression and the public’s right to information. Senator Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada yesterday submitted a bill in the Senate that would remove the risk of imprisonment from journalists accused of libel. Currently, one count of libel is punishable by up to six years in jail, and a fine of up to 6,000 pesos (US$140). “This law is in direct confrontation with freedom of speech and should warrant necessary revision,” Estrada stated in the bill’s explanatory notes. “It is ironic, we call our country democratic yet we have the highest rate of killings and intimidation of journalists in Asia," the son of former president Joseph Estrada said. "Why should a reporter be penalized when he only speaks the truth or when he voices his just opinion to the masses, who need to know what is going on?” The senator said an individual’s right to pursue action against unethical and irresponsible journalism must also be recognized, but imprisonment is not a just penalty. Civil damages, he said, should be a big enough deterrent, considering the dire economic situation of most journalists. Estrada’s bill comes a week after the UN’s human rights commission said the libel law in the Philippines contravenes the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights.