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Why take the crime out of libel?

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FROM 2004 to 2012, Philippine legislators filed more than 60 bills seeking the decriminalization of libel or at least the abolition of imprisonment with regard to libel cases. But things have not moved.

So, lamented an analysis Rappler published Jan. 4. No, I do not intend to mix my tears with those of the revered online media over libel-as-still-a-crime nor deprecate their stand. 

As far back as the day decriminalizing libel entered the public discussion, I have stood on the NO platform – writing about it here in February 2014, reprinting it with updates as the occasion arises like now – and putting me at odds with a number of my media peers.   

I have had no problem with libel, notwithstanding the eight cases I had faced in my almost 50 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 – mainly to the prosecutor’s office – crying that I libeled 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 shortcut 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 – until 2010.  

Mid-December of that year, a complaint rising out of my rejoinder to a news story denigrating procedures in the conferment of some awards went beyond the prosecutor’s office, even 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. The case ran all of three years. Meaning not to scratch old scars to draw fresh blood anew, I made no mention of names and circumstances here. A slew of stories about it came out in the local media and I recorded my personal account in acaesar.blogspot.com.

19 years ‘warranted’

In November 2015, a libel complaint I did not know still existed came to my knowledge only when I applied for an NBI clearance relative to the renewal of my gun permit and found an alias warrant to my name. The case was filed in 1997. Alas, two co-respondents – Sun-Star Clark publisher Joe Pavia and editor Ody Fabian – had died since.    

I hastened to Angeles City RTC Branch 62 to post bail and seek the reopening of the case. The ink on my fingers and my palms from posting bail had yet to be completely scrubbed off when I got a subpoena from the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office for another libel complaint. A Guagua cop felt maligned by a story in Punto! in August 2015 written by the erudite Ding Cervantes alleging irregularities in the handling of evidence obtained in drug buy-bust. As editor, I was co-respondent.

The 1997 case filed by husband-and-wife officers of the Mabalacat Water District was dismissed in August 2016 “for lack of interest to prosecute” as the complainants could not be found anymore. What dragged on – absent my knowledge – for nearly 20 years took but two hearings to be scratched off the court archives.  

People vs. Cervantes, Lacson et al did not go beyond pre-trial for over three years, the complainant showing himself in court all of three times. Raffled off thereafter to another judge, the case was “conditionally dismissed” in August 2020 after only three hearings.     

Grand celebrations

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.

At the time of our reporting prime, not too long ago, libel cases were never considered swords of Damocles hanging over our heads in our daily journalistic grind, but rather 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 fit 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.”  

Badge of honor

Indeed, there was this somewhat perverted sense Pampanga journalists 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 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, hauled 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 Jerry Lacuarta (+) of Manila Bulletin, haled to court by a US Navy man nabbed for international drug trafficking – of a “considerable amount of high-grade heroin stuffed inside imported tuna” coursed through the Subic port. The conviction of the American sailor ended the libel case.

So, it was with Lacuarta again, with Fred Roxas (+) of the Philippine News Agency and Ding Cervantes of Philippine Star, earning a P20-million libel suit over their reportage of alleged anomalies and incompetence in the construction of the FVR Megadike system. The complaint failed to go beyond the prosecutor’s office.   

So, it was with Rizal Policarpio (+) of Balita who, until 1999, held the distinction of being the only member of the Pampanga media to have gone the whole legal course of libel – filed by a town assessor implicated in the murder of three men – and acquitted for absence of malice. 

So, it was with the venerable Toy Soto (+) of Times Journal, who in his senior year was hit by what he evaded through his decades of journalism practice – a libel suit from Angeles City traders inferred in a report of the Clark Development Corp. as alleged smugglers. Dismissed at the prosecutor’s office, nonetheless.

So, it was with Arnel San Pedro of Manila Times, charged over his exposes of allegedly anomalous transactions in a government rehab center; acquitted after 17 years on trial.    

So, it was with me.

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 libel. So many libel cases we have been subjected to that the Pampanga media is now a proud keeper of a “Libel Tradition.”

Shields

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 defense in libel, inaccuracies make falsities that open the respondent to utter defenselessness.

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 joined the voices raised against online libel in the Cybercrime Law, mainly for the harsh punitive provisions, I harbor a fear over the decriminalization of libel. 

Not too long ago, at the Senate deliberations on the then Cybercrime Prevention Bill, I was 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 libeled, you can file 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 libeling of people,’’ rationalized Pimentel. “If we decriminalize it, more people would feel they’re victims of injustice because they’ve been libeled, 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, I tell you.    

 

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