This was first posted on March 9, 2007 4:54 AM as “Libel in Manila” on lalarimando.multiply.com.
Last March 7, 2007, I was a certified fugitive.
That Wednesday, I was in Cavite Export Processing Zone doing several interviews when I received a barrage of text messages warning me not to go to the office because an arrest warrant was being served arising from the libel case filed in 2005 by Chavit Singson, a well-known and influential politician north of Manila. The other respondents were out chasing a story or moderating a forum. Gemma Bagayaua, our online editor, was in the office for an afternoon appointment, and was present when the arresting officers arrived. Gemma was taken to the police department and detained overnight since there was no one to receive her Php10,500 (US$215) bail bond.
The respondents of the libel case included me, Gemma, and Aries Rufo who authored a package of investigative articles on Singson, Marites Vitug, our editor in chief, and Maan Hontiveros, our marketing manager who had nothing to do with the editorial aspects and did not budge when asked to kill the Singson stories before they were published. These stories were in the June 2005 issue of Newsbreak Magazine where I am the business editor. The package of articles was written in June 2005 detailing his growing influence in the current Arroyo administration, plus an account of his wealth (I wrote about his involvement in the Metrowalk property which sits on contested land in Pasig City). A month after, Singson slapped us with a Php100 million (US$2 million) libel case in his hometown province, Ilocos Sur, about 8 hours drive from Manila.
We all had a sleepless night that Wednesday, worried sick for Gemma who had to spend a night at the police station (Thankfully, she stayed at the police’s office, not inside the jail). The other staff members who were not respondents stayed to keep her company. Other members of the media also visited her to give support. That night, major TV and radio stations featured the story on primetime and late night news. It is the first time in many years that a journalist has to be detained overnight because of a libel suit. In a country which prides itself for having the freest media in Southeast Asia, sending messengers of news to jail has an eerie effect.
The following day, Thursday, I and the other respondents posted bail, had our mug shots taken, and “played the piano” (read: thumbmarks). Sans the media glare, now I know how it feels to be a criminal. The Philippines is one of few countries in the world where libel cases are a criminal offense.
Singson is currently running for senator this mid-term election (May14). I am actually puzzled why he would want to call attention and remind Filipinos about corruption stories written about him now that he is campaigning. It just doesn’t make sense. There are so many conspiracy theories about the timing of the arrest warrant — from Singson being genuinely surprised by it since the whole thing was maneuvered by another previous Newsbreak subject (who also filed libel case against us), to Singson just really being a bully.
He has since been giving interviews that he will only drop the libel case if we issue a public apology for our stories. Since we would not – and never will – apologize for writing our stories on him, we were told a simple phone call to him will do. I guess he just needs some bragging right to say we were wrong.
What’s an apology for? All of our stories — on Chavit and other subjects — are painstakingly researched. The facts are double-checked. We make sure allegations are well-documented. And a lawyer goes through them before they see print. Particularly for the package stories on Chavit, the average time we spent developing and researching the stories were at least two weeks. For the Metrowalk story, my team and I gathered corporate and legal documents from the PCGG, the real estate documents from the Pasig city hall (so we could draw a map of the entire 5,000-hectare prime commercial property to guide us, draw a hierarchy of the different levels of leasing arrangements, and double check the specifications from other docs). These were backed by almost a DOZEN interviews. We take our work seriously.
I was actually the one who interviewed him on the phone because I speak his dialect, Ilocano. We gave him a chance to answer all the allegations we raised in our stories. That’s how we do journalism – we present all sides, we give chance to the subject of our stories to comment on what we came up with in the course of our investigation. We’re not out to ruin anyone’s reputation. We just hold public figures accountable for their actions.
Yesterday at the police station, we were all finally out by 2:30pm (imagine how starved we were). Bureaucracy delayed our release. The rules said we had to turn ourselves in and voluntary surrender before we were able to file our P10,500 bail bond for each. Because of the media frenzy and some forms to fill (including one which had to be done on a Remington typewriter), by the time we were going to pay our bail it was 11:30am and the clerk was already on her lunch break. Hay.
The TV and radio reporters kept on asking us if we think this is a form of media harassment. I was thinking “Isn’t it obvious?” But I just kept answering “This is an inconvenience.” I sure did lose a day which I should have spent researching and interviewing more people for the story I was pursuing in Cavite. One stand-upper was able to capture that when we overheard him say something like this: “These journalists should be out there doing their stories. But they now find themselves being the story.”
Surely, this has not deterred us from doing what we do. Everyday, we will still write stories that expose the bad, the ugly, and praise the good (if truly deserved). Jail or no jail, we will still practice good journalism because Filipinos deserve to know the truth. That’s what we are journalists for.
Our sincerest thanks to our friends in media and other industries, including my concerned relatives and friends, who expressed and showed support during this ordeal.