Sunday, August 13, 2006

Stop SLAPPing the press

There is an urgent need for Congress to pass legislation that would deter the filing of baseless and frivolous lawsuits against journalists.
The state should emphasize this constitutional policy to promote and protect public participation in discussion of matters of public interest by enacting a law that would curb the filing of baseless and harassment lawsuits.
This urgent need comes in the wake of continuous libel suits that have been filed against members of the press.
Most lawsuits filed against member of the press are meant only to harass newsmen who are only doing their duties as watchdogs in the affairs of governance.
Common charges slapped against the working press are libel and defamation.
Most of the complainants are government officials, and the self-proclaimed powers-that-be who loathe the exposes against corruption and government abuse.
Lately, in the national scene, editors and high ranking executives of national dailies have been charged with violating the laws against inciting to sedition.
In our own community, the Negros Chornicle has been the subject of harassment by high ranking local government officials who do not like what we publish.
A series of libel suits have been slapped against the Negros Chronicle.
Fortunately, all these harassment suits never saw the light of day and have been dismissed at the city prosecutors’ level and the Department of Justice.
The unabated slapping of harassment suits, with the intention of pressuring newsmen, or even to silence them should be stopped.
This continued harassment sends a dangerous signal against press freedom in the country, and sends a chilling effect upon every journalist.
A journalist is hampered professionally and economically in the performance of his duties as the purveyor of truth if he has to face frivolous lawsuits.
In the United States, there are state laws that protect journalists against the filing of baseless civil or criminal charges hurled against them.
Such baseless charges have been commonly labeled as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).
In California for instance, the legislature has passed a statue against SLAPP where a newsman, or an individual engaged in the exercise of free speech who is sued, can seek a preliminary court determination whether the suit is meant only to harass him.
The newsman’s relief includes the recovery of the costs of suit and attorney’s fees, should the court finally determine that the suit against the newsman or individual is frivolous and baseless.
The Publisher’s Association of the Philippines, of which the Negros Chronicle is an active member, will take the initiative of drafting a similar bill and propose it to Congress.
The state should officially declare it to be in the public interest to encourage continued participation in matters of public significance, and that this participation should not be chilled through abuse of the judicial process.
It is our obligation as journalists to band together and curb this disturbing increase in strategic lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances.
It is high time to put a stop to SLAPP.

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