Lawfare Against De Lima and Media

From the beginning, and for years now, I have argued that there is no basis for the charges against Senator Leila De Lima. Developments in her trial this week confirmed that. Any serious observer in that process will concede that the government has nothing against the detained opposition leader. As the Free Leila De Lima Committee has urged, the good senator should be granted bail immediately, and her cases must be dismissed eventually for obvious lack of evidence.

Last week, in the De Lima trial, the Digital Forensic Examiner from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) testified that, based on her cell phone extraction reports, Senator De Lima was not involved in any transaction that could link her to the Bilibid drug trade inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).

Prior to the PDEA agent’s testimony, a financial investigator from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) testified that his investigation of those suspected to have been involved in the Bilibid drug trade revealed that no money flowed from the bank accounts to either De Lima or her co-accused.

Moreover, even before the testimonies of the PDEA and AMLC officers, former PNP intelligence chief Benjamin Magalong (now Baguio City Mayor) testified that he did not receive any report of De Lima’s alleged involvement in the Bilibid drug trade, nor of any integrity issue about her, for that matter.

There is only one conclusion from these testimonies, according to the Free Leila De Lima Committee: they clearly point to no other conclusion that there were no money trail, transaction, and negative report or information that would implicate Senator de Lima to the Bilibid drug trade or any alleged criminal conspiracy.

As a member of the Committee, I urge the Department of Justice, to take earnest steps to desist from further prosecuting—nay, persecuting—Senator de Lima, mindful of its mission not to needlessly prosecute anyone but to render justice to everyone.

I also hope our courts will perform their sacred duties in the administration of justice, including the granting of bail and eventual dismissal of cases as warranted by the facts and evidence on record.

What has always been clear is that these cases against Senator De Lima are a prime example of how the Duterte administration has weaponized the law for political reasons. It has done the same against independent media as well, for example against Maria Ressa and the online news website Rappler she leads (disclosure: I am a member of the Rappler Board of Directors). Last June, Ressa and former Rappler journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted of cyber libel, becoming the first Filipino journalists to be convicted of the offense. On top of this, multiple arrest warrants have been served upon Ressa and she has been banned from traveling abroad.

Another example is the denial by the House of the Representatives of the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest media network, has resulted in its being off the air since May 2020. Fortunately, it has found ways to deliver its programs while awaiting a second chance for its franchise to be renewed.

A great number of killings and attacks on journalists have not been prosecuted, resulting in crimes that go unpunished. More often, the cases involve or implicate high-ranking officials and others who have the power to influence state security forces, investigating agencies, and the prosecution service of the government.

This official apathy—at times, outright contempt—towards journalists and the independent media is indicative of an unwritten government policy adopting lawfare, the weaponization of the law and legal processes against democratic dissent and other fundamental freedoms. Lawfare has hugely engendered this climate of impunity, and has largely enabled the persistent and systematic crackdown on media freedom and the right to freedom of expression in the country.

For all these reasons, the Free Leila De Lima Committee is organizing with Cebu for Human Rights on November 2, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, a webinar From Repression to Resistance on the crimes of impunity against journalists and other cases of media repression to discuss the roots and contextual drivers of the phenomenon, and distill knowledge and best practices to confront them.

Leading media practitioners, press freedom and human rights advocates, and legal experts will come together to share their expertise, insights, and experiences— particularly stories of resistance and hope—on lawfare against press freedom and cognate rights. Walden Bello, Maria Ressa, Leo Lastimosa, Dean Mel Sta Maria, Bambi Beltran, Froilan Gallardo, and myself will be speaking. Our colleagues from Cebu—Atty. Fionah Bojos, Professor Jason Baguia, and Atty. Daymeg Lepiten will be hosting the Zoom Webinar which will be livestreamed on Facebook.

Let’s resist repression together. Opposition politicians, journalists, and activists are usually targeted first. But an authoritarian government will not end with them. Any one of us might be next and like dominos all good men and women will fall. But not if we unite against such attacks.


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