A QUEZON CITY regional trial court has convicted a journalist from Baguio City for cyber-libel over a Facebook post he made about a former agriculture secretary in 2017.

In a 19-page decision made public on Tuesday, the Quezon City Branch 93 ruled that Franklin Cimatu made defamatory comments against former Department of Agriculture secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol in the social media post.

“A cursory reading of the Facebook post would show the intention of the writer, herein accused Cimatu, to injure the reputation, credit and virtue of Piñol, who, at the time the Facebook post was published, was Secretary of Agriculture,” Presiding Judge Evangeline Cabochan-Santos said in the ruling.

The court noted that Mr. Cimatu, a community journalist and Rappler, Inc. contributor, made it appear in the post that the ex-agriculture chief got rich during the bird flu outbreak in 2017, gaining P21 million.

He was sentenced to up to five years, five months and 11 days in prison along with a fine of P300,000 for moral damages.

The journalist argued the post was only meant to be seen by his personal Facebook friends.

The trial court disagreed, citing that the post used Facebook’s “public” setting.

“We hope to craft the appeal before the year ends and will fight it out,” Mr. Cimatu, also an award-winning poet, told BusinessWorld in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“As a journalist, I have always been for the decriminalization of libel especially when it is used to weaponize” he added.

Mr. Piñol did not immediately reply to a Facebook Messenger chat seeking comment.

Senator Ana Theresia “Risa” N. Hontiveros-Baraquel, who filed a bill last week seeking to decriminalize libel, said existing laws “have been weaponized to stifle very basic fundamental rights.”

“These laws have been used to constantly attack many of our freedoms, but particularly the freedom of the press. We need to decriminalize libel if we are to truly defend press freedom,” she said in a statement.

If passed, Senate Bill 1593 or the Decriminalization of Libel Act will amend the Revised Penal Code and the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

“It is the job of reporters to share information for the public’s knowledge,” the senator said. “We need the press to vet information and continue to be the safekeepers of facts.”

In a separate statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) condemned the court decision saying it violated freedom of expression and press freedom.

“With due respect to the local court’s decision, NUJP maintains that the right to free expression and press freedom is paramount especially when exercised in relation to public officials,” the group said.

“Cimatu’s case is proof how government officials use libel as a weapon to harass and intimidate journalists.”

Last month, the Philippines accepted 200 recommendations from the United Nations Human Rights Council, including protecting journalists.

Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla has said the government does not sanction attacks, harassment or intimidation of journalists.

The Philippines was the seventh worst country in the world where journalist killers get away with murder, according to a report by New York-based watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published last month.

The country slipped two notches in the World Press Freedom Index released by the global watchdog, ranking 138th among 180 countries last year.

The Council for People’s development has said impunity in the Philippines impedes freedom of expression and the people’s right to access reliable information. — John Victor D. Ordoñez and Alyssa Nicole O. Tan