Libel, Literacy, and the Law

As any investigative journalist knows, the best way to sell your book is to create a controversy. Or better yet, a high-profile libel suit in the tradition of Barry Wain’s Malaysian Maverick.

Today, Marites Danguilan Vitug’s Shadow of Doubt about the Philippine Supreme Court hits the presses. I blogged a bit about the book and the current controversy over Arroyo’s nomination of a new Chief Justice last week. Now, Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco, Jr. has brought 13 libel charges against Vitug for 1 million pesos for claims made in an earlier article.
According to ABS-CBN News, Velasco alleged that Vitug insinuated in her online article that he has breached provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct by engaging in partisan politics to boost his son’s bid congressional bid in Marinduque province. Without reading the book and knowing the truth of the allegations, I can’t and won’t comment on their veracity. However, one aspect of the story stuck out for me.

When I interned at The Asia Foundation’s office in Manila a few years ago, I was fascinated to learn about the conflict between journalists and political elites. According to the International Federation of Journalists, the Philippines is the most dangerous country for journalists. Just last November, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 29 journalists and 2 support workers were killed just last November in the Maguindanao massacre. Politicians blamed this on the fact that Filipino journalists are very aggressive and often don’t properly check their facts.

With this in mind, I was surprised by Justice Velasco’s claim that:

He said he granted the persistent requests of Vitug to interview him on December 2, 2009, a day before the article was posted online but he said the journalist did not confront him on the claims of Pastrana and Villar concerning politics in Marinduque.

Again, without further facts, it is impossible to assign blame or liability. Nonetheless, it does seem odd for a journalist not to have sought confirmation or denial from Velasco’s office before sending the story to press. Somebody isn’t telling the whole truth.

It will also be interesting to see whether the judiciary rallies around Velasco. Usually, libel cases involve politicians, not judges, so the court has less of a corporate interest. In Velasco v. Vitug, if the court rules in favor of free speech, it could open the gateway to more investigative journalism regarding judicial politics in the Philippines.

I do strongly suggest Rule by Hukum readers read the whole ABS-CBN News article. If you speak Tagalog, there’s also a news report posted on YouTube. I hope to review Vitug’s book as soon as I receive it. Stay tuned.

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