||Vitug Undeterred by Ongoing Legal Battle with
By Melissa Rodgers
Marites Vitug, Philippines
1991 Courage in Journalism Award
Twenty years after receiving the IWMF's Courage in Journalism Award, Marites Vitug of the Philippines continues her unabashed and unapologetic commitment to investigative reporting, despite two new libel suits launched against her.
When she won the Courage in Journalism Award in 1991, Vitug was entangled in a lawsuit stemming from her stories on the destruction of the Palawan rainforest. Her reporting provoked the anger of a logging company with vested economic interests in that region. After a five year battle, the lawsuit was finally dropped. Vitug turned her articles into a book, The Politics of Logging: Power from the Forest, which was published in 1993 and won the Philippines’ National Book Award.
Vitug has since published several more books and co-founded an online newsmagazine,
Newsbreak, in 2000. Her writings tackle an impressive range of subjects including military corruption, the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao and most recently, the Supreme Court of the Philippines.
Vitug’s investigative scrutiny of the Supreme Court has once again exposed her to intimidation and lawsuits. Shortly after the publication of her book
Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court in 2010, Vitug received death threats for three days continuously on her mobile phone. Although the police were unable to establish the identity of the perpetrator, Vitug has strong suspicions that the culprit was a litigant in a case discussed in her book. She turned down offers of police protection.
The threats stopped after a letter to President Macapagal-Arroyo written by IWMF board members on Vitug’s behalf was picked up by the local press. Vitug maintains that publicity is the most effective way to dissolve acts of intimidation; she asserts that, “instead of bodyguards, letters from the IWMF or from local journalist groups were much more help.”
Listen: Vitug on the threats against her life and impact of the IWMF's letter
The initial reaction to
Shadow of Doubt was nevertheless “a bruising experience” for Vitug. “People were telling me that I was destroying the institution,” she recalls, “Initially I thought I wanted to disappear from my country because of all the criticisms.”
Her book was the first to critically examine the inner workings of the Supreme Court. Vitug began covering the Supreme Court in 2007 and was instantly intrigued by the parallels between military culture and the “secret, hierarchical” world of the courts.
Vitug’s writing about the Supreme Court has ensnared her in two new lawsuits. The litigant in both cases is sitting Supreme Court Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr., whose son Lord Allan sought a Congressional seat in the last election. Local politicians told Vitug that Justice Valesco had asked them to campaign on behalf of his son.
Vitug published “a very innocuous” online story in December 2009 pointing out the “delicate dilemmas” implicit in Justice Valesco’s position. Justice Valesco charged Vitug with libel, a criminal offense in the Philippines, in March 2010. In May 2011 he filed a second civil complaint against
Shadow of Doubt, seeking one million Filipino pesos in damages.
The cases remain caught in the slowly turning cogs of the Filipino justice system. Vitug is hopeful that the prosecutor will “stand his ground” and dismiss the case before it reaches the courts. If the lawsuits do proceed to court, Vitug and her lawyer will seek the involvement of an international tribunal, due to the clear conflict of interest a judge in a lower court would face.
The anxieties and delays Vitug is experiencing in her ongoing legal battles highlight the pressing need for the judicial reforms that Vitug calls for in her book. She is satisfied that
Shadow of Doubt convinced many readers that the Supreme Court is not infallible and started a conversation about ways to make the justice system more responsive. Shadow of Doubt has gradually garnered a more positive response and is now a local bestseller.
Vitug plans to continue this discussion about judicial reform in a sequel to
Shadow of Doubt. She’s still in the early stages of her research, but hopes the book will be ready for publication by the end of next year. In this second book, Vitug plans to draw attention to specific “questionable decisions” by the Supreme Court and examine the Court’s finances, “which are so opaque, they’re not transparent at all.”
While the press in the Philippines is free from censorship, Vitug says journalists face an ongoing battle for greater transparency and access to documents. A three year campaign by journalists to decriminalize libel has fizzled out due to lack of political will, but Vitug is optimistic that a freedom of information act will be passed by Congress this year. Vitug already has a list of documents she’s itching to see if the legislation goes through.
Her wish list is primarily related to the research for her new book, but increased transparency of court documents could also work to ease some of the pressure in her own court cases by giving her lawyers, “ammunition, or more information to use in our case.”
Vitug also keeps busy as the chair of the
Newsbreak advisory board, the online current affairs magazine that she co-founded. The publication phased out its print version about two years ago to drive down costs, and found that its transition to an exclusively digital platform increased readership while attracting a younger audience. The compact staff of five full-time journalists generally update the site every other day, with the help of freelance contributors. Major networks have picked up stories from Newsbreak on several occasions. Newsbreak also has an active publishing arm that has produced Shadow of Doubt as well as titles by other investigative journalists.
Vitug was able to attend the 20th anniversary of the Courage in Journalism Awards in 2010, which “brought back memories of the award” that afforded her “a mantle of protection” during her legal struggles in 1991. A full two decades after winning the Courage in Journalism Award yet once again facing legal action for her investigative reporting, Vitug said “it still comforts me to know that the IWMF is in touch with me” and that awardees are not forgotten.
Melissa Rodgers is a graduate student at the University of Ottawa's School of Public & International Affairs.