DECEMBER 29, 2006 (STAR) By Michael Punongbayan - Nearly 40 journalists and press groups filed yesterday a class action suit against President Arroyo’s husband, claiming his libel suits against them violated press freedom.

The class action, filed in Makati City, accused First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo of "abuse of pride and violation of freedom of the press" and demanded P12.5 million in damages.

Jesus Santos, lawyer for Mr. Arroyo, said he welcomed the class suit and quoted the President’s husband as saying, "See you in court."

In a 19-page affidavit, 36 media practitioners — led by newspaper publisher and columnist Ninez Cacho-Olivares, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and The Daily Tribune — said Mr. Arroyo sued them for making fair commentaries and reports on his public life.

"Since 2003, (Mr. Arroyo) has filed a flurry of libel cases against 43 journalists and is claiming an amount of at least P141 million in damages all for fair comments made by them on matters of public interest," they said.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, one of the groups involved, said their class action suit, "also argues that the (libel) suits have not only caused the respondents sleepless nights; they also have a chilling effect on press freedom."

"How can it be a curtailment of press freedom when the law accords him that right" to sue for libel, Santos countered.

Marites Vitug, editor of Newsbreak magazine, said the damages they were seeking were "symbolic" and that they only wanted to prevent others from following the example of Mr. Arroyo.

The lawyer for the journalists, Harry Roque, said it was clear that Mr. Arroyo had filed so many libel suits to stifle journalists exercising the freedom of the press, rather than just to protect his name.

"Unless he is restrained from filing these cases, we feel the media may in fact be silenced," Roque said.

The plaintiffs added that, "from all indications, he will continue filing cases against members of the press who publish criticisms against him no matter how valid they may be."

They said all the articles Mr. Arroyo complained about constitute fair write-ups about the public life of a public figure, which reflect proper exercise of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press.

They added that despite the First Gentleman’s knowledge that he, as a public figure, is open to fair comment and reporting, he "continues to harass plaintiffs with a barrage of malicious libel suits regardless of the limitations that plaintiffs obviously observed in writing their articles."

"It is therefore clear that the defendant is abusing his right to litigate by filing libel suits against plaintiffs for virtually every criticism made against him regardless of prevailing principles and jurisprudence on fair comment, privilege communication, and public interest," the complainants said.

They believe Mr. Arroyo’s acts are manifestly unjust and are therefore punishable under specific provisions of the Civil Code.

The complainants are asking the court to order the First Gentleman to pay them P5 million in moral damages, P5 million exemplary damages, P2 million in actual damages, and P500,000 for litigation expenses.

The civil case was filed before the Office of the Clerk of Court (OCC) and will be raffled off to a judge as early as next week.

"The First Gentleman respects the right of media people to sue him so they should also respect the right to defend my honor through legal means," Santos quoted Mr. Arroyo as saying.

Santos said Mr. Arroyo filed libel cases to protect his rights, not as the First Gentleman, but as an ordinary citizen whose name has allegedly been maligned by some members of the media who write about baseless allegations of wrongdoing.

According to Santos, former senator Francisco Tatad, who was among the complainants, called Mr. Arroyo a "cheating operator" and was not even given a chance to defend himself against an allegation Tatad cannot prove.

Santos also said Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano accused the First Family of maintaining an account in a German bank, which Mr. Arroyo proved to be false after the bank issued a certification denying the existence of such an account.

"Former President (Ferdinand) Marcos has sued Time magazine before. Former President (Corazon) Aquino sued the late newspaper columnist Luis Beltran; even Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay sued broadcaster Bobby Brillantes. So if public officials can sue people, why should the First Gentleman, who is a private citizen, be an exception?" Santos asked.

He said Mr. Arroyo has already formed a seven-man legal team that will handle the class suit, which he welcomes as an opportunity for him to reveal the real motives of those who lodged the charges.

Roque said he expected the case to be long and drawn out, and expressed hope that it would only be settled after Mrs. Arroyo was no longer president, to ensure the decision was fair.

Mrs. Arroyo’s term ends in 2010. She has battled charges of election fraud and corruption, while her husband has been accused by media and the political opposition of using his position to enrich himself. — With Artemio Dumlao, AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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