Living with libel

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    I HAVE had no problem with libel, notwithstanding the seven cases I had faced in my almost 40 years of writing.

    No bragging there, just being matter-of-factly. I have always considered a libel case as par for the course in the journalism field. As a recourse – the only legal one – of anyone who felt maligned in print, broadcast, or personal utterance, to seek redress for her/his grievance. Indeed, the exercise of a civil right in our democratic state.

    It is precisely owing to this core belief that I never begrudged all those people who took me to court – okay, to the prosecutor’s office – crying, at times ululating, that I libelled them. I respected their right to seek my comeuppance for whatever perceived and felt wrong I did them. I respected them for their civility – of going the judicial course instead of taking the extra-judicial route with extreme prejudice.

    It is precisely because no libel complaint bearing my name as respondent ever prospered, all finding closure at the prosecutor’s office, that I have lived well with the reality of libel all these years.

    Ah, my mistake: one libel case – that arising from my piece Romero ululating – went beyond the prosecutor’s, after its dismissal and subsequent denial of a motion for reconsideration there, to the Department of Justice via the complainant’s petition for review.

    Only to be dismissed anew. Thus screamed this paper’s front page of July 9, 2013: DOJ junks Romero petition: 3-time MOKA loser loses suit a 3rd time.

    No, I did not mean to scratch old scars to draw fresh blood anew there. The case is material to the issue at hand. Any dismissal of a libel case is a cause for grand celebrations, as much for the personal triumph of the writer-respondent and his paper or radio-TV station, as for the victory of justice, and the supremacy of press freedom.

    In our time, not too long ago, libel cases were never considered swords of Damocles hanging over our heads in our daily journalistic grind, but areas of opportunity to test the bounds of the freedom of expression. The possibility of libel cases never deterred us from the pursuit of the story, any story fi t to print, to appropriate the hallowed motto of The New York Times.

    No fear factor, no “chilling effect” then as now did a libel case serve as prior restraint in our exercise of this profession. Feeling safeguarded as we were by Justice Malcolm, writing in United States v. Bustos, 37 Phil. 731, 740, 741, to wit:

    “The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs.

    Complete liberty to comment on the conduct of public men is a scalpel in the case of free speech. The sharp incision of its probe relieves the abscesses of officialdom. Men in public life may suffer under a hostile and unjust accusation; the wound can be assuaged with the balm of clear conscience.

    A public officer must not be too onion-skinned with reference to comment upon his official acts. Only thus can intelligence and dignity of the individual be exalted. Of course, criticism does not authorize defamation.

    Nevertheless, as an individual is less than the state, so must criticism be borne for the public good.” Indeed, there was this somewhat perverted sense we held then – a number of us still holds to this day – of libel cases as badges of honor, aye, journalism’s very version of the Medal of Valor, to be worn and displayed with pride.

    So the more libel complaints, the more effective, if not better, the journalist. So it was with the late Ody Fabian of The Voice who landed himself at the Angeles City Jail over a libel complaint from the Angeles University Foundation Medical Center, and cleared of a P25-million case from a mayor, among others.

    So it was with Sonny Lopez and Elmer Cato of the Angeles Sun, haled to the fiscal’s office by then Angeles City Mayor Antonio Abad Santos over exposes on corruption in the city government, and subsequently cleared of libel.

    So it was with Ashley Jay Manabat of Sun-Star Clark tagged in a ridiculous P500- million suit over articles repudiating the doubly ridiculous claims of someone owning the Clark special ecozone along with practically the whole of Luzon. So it was with me.

    Though, as much a vindication – of the correctness of the story, politically and factually, as a resolute re-commitment to the ethics of journalism is every dismissal of a libel case. Two basic elements in journalism we have experienced as strong shields against libel: accuracy and fairness.

    Precise as precise can be in the facts obtaining in one’s story. While truth is not always a defence in libel, inaccuracies make falsities that open the respondent to utter defencelessness.

    Fairness is the antidote to malice – the usually most damning of libel’s four requisites. Evil intent or ill will on the part of the writer will be more difficult to establish in a story that presents all sides fairly.

    Be truthful. Be accurate. Be fair. That’s what all the editors I worked with told me on my way up in the pecking order of the Fourth Estate. I have upheld – did my best to, every which way I wrote – all three. Still, I’ve had my share of libel suits. And I’ve been lucky. Emerging unscathed, and rather stronger, from them.

    Even as I’ve joined the voices raised against online libel in the Cybercrime Law, mainly for the harsh punitive provisions, I have this fear over the decriminalization of libel. I am in awe of the honourable senators – Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Alan Peter Cayetano, Francis Escudero, Edgardo Angara and Teofisto Guingona III – moving toward that direction.

    However, I stand with Sen. Koko Pimentel in his cautionary plea to his peers on decriminalizing libel. “It’s a redress for grievance. If you’re libelled, you can fi le a complaint, and if the fiscal tells you no libel was committed, at least you feel you tried the remedy, and the potential penalty—since it’s a jail term—is sufficient enough to deter indiscriminate libelling of people,’’ rationalized Pimentel.

    “If we decriminalize it, more people would feel they’re victims of injustice because they’ve been libelled, and they don’t have a remedy. We don’t want people to take the law into their hands because of inefficient justice system.’’

    Inefficient justice system. That’s one operative phrase that has not really factored in amid all the noise rising from the Supreme Court’s declaration of the constitutionality of the Cybercrime Law.

    Given the Maguindanao Massacre and other media killings even with libel laws extant, it will most certainly get even worse with libel decriminalized.

    And the culture of impunity will get the nation in an even tighter grip. Yeah, I would rather face summons from the prosecutor’s office than look straight into the barrel of a .45. I have been through that too.

    No mere chilling effect but a polar vortex there.

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