Sun.Star Davao to appeal libel conviction

SUN.STAR Davao will contest the libel conviction of its editor-in-chief Stella Estremera, who along with former publisher Antonio M. Ajero, was rendered guilty by Regional Trial Court (RTC) 18 Judge Carmelita Sarno-Davin last Tuesday in Digos City.

Estremera said the decision does not sit well with them as it should not sit well with all other journalists.

"Because if you base it on the news story from which the libel case came from, you would realize that all of us can be convicted because it's a police report and nothing else. There wasn't even a follow-up. There wasn't even a quotation from anybody. It was just a police report from a blotter listing 32 people, among them was the complainant," she said in an interview with reporters at her office on Wednesday.

"You know, you are a reporter, that in a blotter, a case wherein 32 names are listed, you just list down. You normally have no means of calling him up. But the decision did not cover the reporter who took the witness stand and said he tried to call the complainant but to no avail," she added.

Still, Estremera expressed relief that judgment was already rendered, even though it was unfavorable.

Sun.Star Davao editor-in-chief Stella Estremera convicted of libel
Sun.Star Davao editor-in-chief Stella Estremera, a journalist for the past 27 years, describes her conviction as an eye-opener on how libel, as a legal instrument, can be used by anyone against reporters and editors for as long as that person has the means, during an interview with members of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and local media in her office on Wednesday. She welcomes the decision, albeit unfavorable, since it allows her to take on the next legal move and discuss the judgment without being sub judice. The case dragged on for 10 years. (King Rodriguez)

The case dragged on for almost a decade during which they could not even discuss the merits of the case since that will be sub judice. With the judgment rendered, this allows them to take on the next legal move, which is to appeal their case.

“Kahit papaano, I am thankful to Judge Davin for rendering that judgment so that we can move on,” said Estremera.

She said the case goes against stereotypes of journalists who get convicted of libel.

"We have this stereotype that those who are charged with libel are those who are hard-hitting. But here comes a conviction from a police story, which was not attacking any person. Sun.Star has never been rabid about attacking anyone yet we are the ones convicted," Estremera said, adding this shows that for anyone who intends to gag a writer, the legal instrument is there available.

Estremera and Ajero were convicted before RTC Branch 18-Digos City after presiding Judge Davin found the respondents guilty for failing to get the side of complainant Baguio Saripada, former officer of the General Services Offices (GSO), whose name surfaced in the story entitled “32 pushers ug user mitahan” (32 pushers and users surrender).

The article was published in the July 28, 2003 issue of Sun.Star SuperBalita Davao. The list of 32 names from the Police Regional Office indicated that Saripada was of the GSO Digos.

"This only proves that there is really a law which is prone to abuse. Imagine you can be jailed for a police report?" Jessie Casalda, National Union of Journalists in the Philippines-Davao City, said Wednesday.

Estremera and Ajero were ordered to pay the court a P6,000 fine "with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency" and P200,000 for moral damages to the complainant.

"Prone gyud ta labi na tong mga tao nga gusto nga i-silence ang isa ka journalist. Pwede gyud gamiton ang libel laban sa usa ka journalist (We are prone to those who want to silence a journalist. Libel can be used against any member of the media)," Casalda said.

He said he has observed that the court's judgment on libel has changed course, since at least two separate courts have rendered conviction against journalists this year.

One here in Davao region, involving Estremera and Ajero, and another in Cebu against broadcaster Leo Lastimosa, who was fined with P6,000 "with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency" and ordered to pay P2 million in moral damages to complainant former Cebu governor Gwendolyn Garcia. [Read more about Leo Lastimosa's conviction.]

"Dati lenient ang court sa mga journalists because of the freedom of speech pero karon murag sunod-sunod ang conviction (The court was lenient on journalists in the past because of the freedom of speech but conviction was recorded only recently)," Casalda said.

He said it is about time again to call for the decriminalization of libel, adding the court decision brings "chilling effect" to journalists. (With ANC/Sun.Star Davao/Sunnex)
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