Truth in journalism and the case of libel

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AL S. VITANGCOL III

I ATTENDED a court hearing last Wednesday on a libel case filed by a private corporation against a private citizen, and the reporter, editor and publisher of a leading newspaper. Let me then discuss the laws on libel, in relation to truth in journalism here in the Philippines.

The Revised Penal Code defines libel as a “public and malicious imputation of a crime, or a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”

There are four elements to be considered before a journalist can be prosecuted for libel. First, there should be an imputation of a crime, discreditable act or condition to another. Second, there must be a publication of the imputation. Third, the person defamed should be identifiable. Lastly, there should be an existence of malice.

If the libelous statements are printed in a newspaper, not only the writer or author of the article would be held liable for libel but also the editor and publisher of the newspaper.


Online libel

Most people, and even some print journalists, think that the crime of libel is applicable only to print media. There is such thing as online libel – where libel is committed in cyberspace or the Internet, under Republic Act 10175, or Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

RA 10175 is in fact encompassing and forward looking. It uses the phrase “committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.” Thus, if you are using a tablet, a smart phone, a smart TV, or even a “futuristic” gadget, you are still covered.

RA 10175 further states that even after being charged with online libel, the complainant can still sue you for the usual libel under the Revised Penal Code. In terms of penalty, online libel is more punitive.

Libel as a civil case

Libel can also be instituted as a purely civil action (meaning there is no jail term for the convicted offender.) The four elements of libel discussed above were adopted as well in a purely civil action for damages.

There is a difference in weighing the evidence of the offended party. In a criminal case, the conviction should be “beyond reasonable doubt.” However, in a civil case, the award of damages is based only on a “preponderance of evidence.”

The elements

Defamation, which includes libel, means the offense of injuring a person’s character, fame or reputation through false and malicious statements. It is that which tends to injure reputation or to diminish esteem, respect, goodwill or confidence in the plaintiff, or to excite derogatory feelings or opinions about the plaintiff. It is the publication of anything that is injurious to the good name or reputation of another or tends to bring him into disrepute (MVRS Publications, Inc., v. Islamic Da’wah Council of the Philippines, Inc.).

In determining whether certain utterances are defamatory, the words used are to be construed in their entirety and taken in their plain, natural and ordinary meaning, as they would naturally be understood by persons reading them, unless it appears that they were used and understood in another sense.

Libel is published not only when it is widely circulated, but also when it is made known or brought to the attention or notice of another person other than its author and the offended party. Verily, three is a crowd.
The circulation of an allegedly libelous matter in a newspaper is certainly sufficient publication.

Statements are not libelous unless they refer to an ascertained or ascertainable person, and that person must be the plaintiff (in a civil case) or complainant (in a criminal case). However, the obnoxious writing need not mention the libeled party by name. It is sufficient if it is shown that the offended party is the person meant or alluded to (Quisumbing v. Lopez).

Malice connotes ill will or spite and speaks not in response to duty but merely to injure the reputation of the person defamed, and implies an intention to do ulterior and unjustifiable harm. It is present when it is shown that the author of the libelous remarks made such remarks with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity thereof (Vasquez v. Court of Appeals).

Journalist’s defense

Responsible journalists can find solace in Article 354 of the RPC, which enumerates some exceptions to the presumption of malice in a defamatory imputation.

“1. A private communication made by any person to another in the performance of any legal, moral or social duty; and;

“2. A fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments or remarks, of any judicial, legislative or other official proceedings which are not of confidential nature, or of any statement, report or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions.”

My insight tells me that Article 354 should likewise include in its enumeration fair commentaries on matters of public interest since these are likewise privileged. Hence, journalists who are simply making “fair commentaries” on matters of public interest should have nothing to worry about.

Journalists should take the time to understand the laws on libel and think over what they write. Laws are not there to stop journalists from doing their jobs.

allinsight.manilatimes@gmail.com
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4 Comments

  1. Prof. Shawn Thompson on

    I teach libel law in a journalism degree program in Canada and notice that unlike many legal jurisdictions in the West, you say that Filipino defamation law allows for the defamation of people who are dead. That is an interesting difference and must indicate a significant difference of thinking in th Philippines. Can you explain the reason for this difference?

  2. Sir, is Robredo’s video message to the UN libelous and therefore deserves a court case? People of the Phil vs. Robredo? Thank you.

  3. Alangilan M. Go on

    Sir, how about an employee using facebook (customized though with about 20 people shared) to malign an employeer in a strong allusion. Does this constitute cyber libel? Thank you.

  4. Jose A. Oliveros on

    But you failed to discuss one important aspect of the libel law – that is proof of truth.