Compromise deal on pork barrel series: Journalists throw support for former Inquirer editors, reporter

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THE MANAGEMENT of the country’s leading broadsheet, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), has been criticized by former PDI executive editor Jose Ma. Nolasco and media colleagues for entering a compromise agreement to settle a libel case.

Broadcaster Melo del Prado in 2014 filed a libel complaint against Nolasco, former Inquirer News Editor Artemio T. Engracia Jr., Inquirer.net Editor in Chief Abel S. Ulanday, Inquirer Reporter Christine O. Avendano, and former Inquirer Reporter Nancy C. Carvajal over the paper’s award-winning stories on the pork barrel scam.

By entering the agreement, the management agreed to the following terms:
• Publish an apology to Del Prado in the PDI newspaper with at least a heading on the front page leading readers to the full text
• Publish the same apology on the main page of Inquirer.net with comments and feedback on the online article disabled
• Purge, remove, and take down all internet archives and Inquirer.net archives of copies of and links to the publication’s subject of the case and related articles, including 10 pork barrel stories and sidebars
• Provide Del Prado P1.5 million worth of advertising space based on prevailing publishing rates, tax-free, transferable to third party/ies, in part or in full, and non-expirable

In return for signing the deal and complying with its terms, Del Prado agreed to drop the libel complaint.

Although Nolasco, Engracia, and Carvajal refused to sign the agreement, the PDI management proceeded with the settlement of the libel suit by running the newspaper and website apology to Del Prado on July 30.

‘Bad messages’

“More than the libel complaint, this is about the PDI management’s refusal to defend excellent journalism, press freedom, freedom of speech, the people’s right to be informed about issues of public concern like the 10 billion-peso pork barrel scam,” Nolasco said in an interview with Altermidya.

Nolasco stressed that the management’s decision only sends bad messages to Inquirer editors and reporters, whom he clarified are good journalists who had nothing to do with the compromise agreement.

“First bad message: If your story becomes the subject of a libel complaint, the management won’t stand by your story. Even if you have won an award or brought honor to the Inquirer. Wala, hindi nila ipagtatanggol yan,” the former editor said.

In his eight-page letter to PDI Chairman Raul J. Palabrica, dated February 22, Nolasco argued why Del Prado’s complaint was “weak” and how the compromise settlement was “unwarranted, unreasonable, and unprincipled.”

Nolasco maintained that Del Prado’s claim of defamation needs proof beyond reasonable doubt of actual malice on the part of the defendants. He stressed that the Inquirer editorial staff adhered to strict journalistic standards in the process of producing the news stories, and as such, the publication of a front-page apology was unwarranted nor was the granting of any entitlement to damages to Del Prado.

The purging of the news stories in question from the newspaper’s archives is also an act of abandonment of the responsibility to preserve the newspaper’s integrity, he added.

Palabrica, however, did not respond to the objections to the compromise agreement, consult with the five respondents, or even acknowledge receipt of Nolasco’s letter.

“Second bad message: the management will remove your multi-awarded stories from the archives and relegate it to the trash can where your mother and father, boyfriend or girlfriend, classmates, neighbors, media colleagues, and your fan base won’t be able to access it again. And eventually, forget all about it,” Nolasco said.

Del Prado’s libel suit cited supposed inaccuracies in the March 2014 story, “Pork payoffs to newscasters Erwin Tulfo, Del Prado, others bared: 2 broadcasters got checks from Nabcor,” which was based on interviews with National Agribusiness Corp. officials and documents they submitted to the Office of the Ombudsman.

After Del Prado filed his complaint, then PDI publisher Raul C. Pangalangan—also a former dean of the UP College of Law and judge of the International Criminal Court—stood by the paper’s report since “it was fully supported by the statements of two witnesses” and “it was published after a careful investigation by our reporters and editors.”

It was only after seven years of litigation that Palabrica reversed the management’s position upon the advice of the company’s legal counsel, and urged all five respondents to sign the agreement.

“Third bad message to the journalists: If you won’t go along with the settlement, you`ll be cast adrift without the services of the company’s defense lawyer and you’ll have to hire and pay your own defense lawyer.”

It remains unclear whether Del Prado will abandon his libel suit pending at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court or pursue his case against Nolasco, Engracia, and Carvajal. A court hearing scheduled on August 2 was canceled due to lockdown restrictions in Metro Manila.

Aside from the chilling effect on the Inquirer editorial staff, the management may not be aware of another bad message it is sending to readers with the compromise agreement, Nolasco said.

“The management is in effect telling the readers ‘We won’t vouch for the accuracy and fairness of the Inquirer’s stories like its exposé on how our representatives in Congress pocketed huge kickbacks by spending people’s money on fictitious projects and fake NGOs.”

All of these messages may collectively affect PDI’s newsroom, inadvertently demoralizing its staff and diminishing the newspaper’s credibility, Nolasco said.

‘Uphold fearless journalism’

PDI, through AVP for Corporate Affairs Connie Kalagayan, said in a Rappler report that they are barred by the sub judice rule from publicly discussing the case’s merits or demerits.

Media groups have since denounced the actions of PDI’s management for their implications on press freedom.

“The unfortunate move is a complete departure from the Inquirer’s longstanding journalistic tradition of fearless and courageous reporting, a legacy that its late editor-in-chief Letty J. Magsanoc and countless other journalists have stood and risked their lives and names for,” the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said in a statement.

“The Inquirer management’s tragic decision to submit to capricious demands sets a dangerous precedent and emboldens the powers that be to exploit criminal libel to restrict and gag the press from ferreting out the truth and live up to its duty in keeping the public informed,” NUJP added.

The NUJP called to decriminalize libel and condemned the use of “lawfare” to silence the free press. It lauded Nolasco, Engracia, and Carvajal for standing by their stories, and expressed support to Inquirer journalists.

“We urge them and the community of independent journalists to restore their courage by continuing the Inquirer’s long and vibrant history of fearless reporting and upholding their right to publish, especially during these dangerous times when we need it most.”

The Altermidya Network similarly showed solidarity with Nolasco, Engracia, and Carvajal, along with PDI editorial staff.

“This kind of journalism is what is needed in these times – we are in the middle of a pandemic during which billions in public funds are unaccounted for, and when lack of transparency abounds in government,” Altermidya said in a statement.

“How can enterprising reporters build the courage to dig deeper and ferret out the truth when they are uncertain if their media organization will support them? To compromise is to chip at the courage that journalists of our times need,” Altermidya added.

The alternative media group expressed hope that Inquirer editors and journalists will continue to uphold the paper’s brand of fearless and courageous journalism.

“Alternative media journalists are no strangers to various forms of attacks and intimidation, especially in the past few years. Yet, as journalists who stand by the principle of truth-telling and the hallowed discipline of verification, it is our task to defend that truth and support the journalists that worked hard at obtaining it.”

Meanwhile, Nolasco hopes that the issue will heighten public awareness on the importance of defending press freedom, especially today, and that media colleagues will realize the urgent need to wholeheartedly support media organizations and individual journalists who are attacked by the enemies of press freedom.

“This fight can’t be won only by a few brave journalists,” he said.

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