Updated: July 11,2017, 7:o1 AM
Updated: July 10, 2017, 10:39 AM
Press freedom and the limits of free speech
By Ted Alcuitas
The saga of Toronto’s ‘Balita’ newspaper and its publisher Teresita ‘Tess’ Cusipag, is a sober reminder that there are limits to free speech.
Cusipag has just been released from jail (June 25, 2017) after serving 13 days of a 21-day sentence for criminal contempt of court arising from the libel case filed against the paper by Senator Tobias Enverga, Jr.
In his decision to impose a permanent injunction against Cusipag et al, Justice Lederman, J. of the Ontario Superior Court acknowledged that a permanent injunction was ‘rare” but that in this particular case he found it to be in order.
“…. Here, there is an ongoing concern that the defendants will continue to publish defamatory statements about Senator Enverga. They have engaged in a persistent campaign to injure Senator Enverga and ruin his reputation and have done so with malice. They have refused to apologize and they have given no indication that they are prepared to stop their irresponsible defamatory attacks. In these circumstances, a permanent injunction will go enjoining the defendants directly or indirectly, from publishing and/or broadcasting, or encouraging or assisting others to publish or broadcast any statements, in any manner whatsoever which in their plain or ordinary meaning or by innuendo suggest: (emphasis ours)
(1) In relation to fundraising activities for KCCC in 2001, Senator Enverga committed criminal fraud;
(2) That by virtue of Senator Enverga’s involvement in fundraising activities for KCCC in 2001 and by virtue of his statements in relation to the charitable status of PCCF, he is a pathological or biological liar.”
This has been a long simmering case between Cusipag and Senator Enverga, the first and only senator of Filipino heritage who was appointed to the Senate in 2012 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Although Enverga complained of an article published by Balita in its Feb- 1-15, 2014 issue, the enmity between the two protagonists started long before that in 2001.
Cusipag has alleged that Senator Enverga was fraudulent in not accounting for $6,000 raised through the activities of the Kalayaan Cultural Community Centre (KCCC). In addition, Cusipag also alleged that the Philippine Canadian Charitable Foundation (PCCF) was not a registered charity under the laws of Canada contrary to claims by Enverga that it was.
As background, it must be pointed that Tess Cusipag runs and has been running her own Miss Manila beauty pageant and claims that her event raises more money than PIDC run by Rosemer Enverga, the wife of Senator Enverga.
The controversy that arose because of the rivalry between this two groups have escalated into a rift that fractured the Filipino community in Toronto.
A virtual media war erupted in Toronto where the country’s largest Filipino population resides with claims and counter-claims abound.
It has spawned an anonymous group – Toronto Balita Boycott whose aim is to encourage businesses not to advertise in Balita.
Former lawyer and blogger Joe Rivera (An Uncomplicated Mind) traced the history the controversy and lamented the insidious impact in his blog, ‘A Community Struggles for Civility’ on February 7, 2013.
Rivera squarely laid the blame on the writings of Romeo Marquez, who is a co-defendant in the defamation case.
Here is how Rivera puts it:
“But the arrival of Romeo Marquez, Tess Balita’s Associate Editor and a former San Diego journalist, has added fuel in the already-raging controversy, particularly with the kind of incendiary language he employs in his articles. It is the same modus operandi that Marquez followed in his newspapering stint in the US that he is now replicating here in Toronto. The trail of controversies he has left behind—his quarrels with various Filipinos, community leaders or otherwise, and videos on YouTube—speaks for the kind of journalism that Balita is currently espousing.”
“….As a newspaper, Balita should understand that it is the freedom of the press that makes it a powerful and significant pillar in the community. It should not take this freedom and power lightly— that it can outrightly censure, silence or even bully its critics anytime it’s not happy with complaints from groups in the community about their news reporting.”
Balita and Cusipag has been slapped with a $250,000 of general, aggravated and punitive damages plus $90,000 in legal costs.
This does not include her own legal costs in the long drawn-out legal battle.
The award is one of the largest in the history of Canadian libel awards.
In his paper, ‘Defamation and Damages’ published in October 2011, David Gooderham found that large awards are rare in the country.
Cusipag appealed the quantum of the award but lost.
She is still facing a host of other libel cases that are asking for millions of dollars in damages.
It is not certain whether the paper can survive the financial troubles it is facing.
But Cusipag vows to soldier on.
We wish her well but cannot resist an unsolicited advice.
The pen is mightier than the sword but if it ruins people’s lives without evidence that can stand up in court, journalists have a responsibility to wield that sword carefully.