My aunt filed a criminal complaint against her next-door neighbor. Their personal feud has been going on for years and it was only this year that she decided to pursue a case. Unfortunately, her complaint was dismissed and she wants to file for reconsideration. From what I have read in the document that she drafted for her reconsideration, it appears that she is not taking the dismissal well as she has stated demeaning words against the prosecutor who handled her complaint, which I think is no longer within the issue of her complaint. I fear that she might get herself in trouble for libel, especially that she is planning to furnish her other neighbors a copy of her supposed reconsideration. Please advise me.
Libel is a crime punishable under our laws, particularly Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended by Section 91 of Republic Act 10951, which provides that:
“A libel committed by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means, shall be punished by prisión correccional in its minimum and medium periods or a fine ranging from Forty thousand pesos (₱40,000) to One million two hundred thousand pesos (₱1,200,000), or both, in addition to the civil action, which may be brought by the offended party.”
In order for libel to be established, the following elements must be present: “(1) imputation of a crime, vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition status or circumstance; (2) publicity or publication; (3) malice; (4) direction of such imputation at a natural or juridical person; and (5) tendency to cause the dishonor, discredit or contempt of the person defamed.” (Alcantara vs Ponce, GR 156183, Feb. 28, 2007, Ponente: Chief Justice Renato Corona)
In the situation which you have presented, your aunt may run the risk of being sued for libel if the allegations against the prosecutor who handled her complaint were imputations of a crime, vice or defect, or any act, omission, condition status or circumstance of the latter, which tend to cause the dishonor, discredit or contempt of the said prosecutor; and if the allegations were maliciously made and likewise published. Moreover, if the demeaning words or imputations, which she stated in her pleading, have no relevance to the legal matters involved, then it may no longer be considered as privilege communication and there may be a case of libel. As clearly elucidated by our Supreme Court in the case of Belen vs People of the Philippines (GR 211120, Feb. 13, 2017, Ponente: Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta):
“A communication is absolutely privileged when it is not actionable, even if the author has acted in bad faith. This class includes allegations or statements made by parties or their counsel in pleadings or motions or during the hearing of judicial and administrative proceedings, as well as answers given by the witness in reply to questions propounded to them in the course of said proceedings, provided that said allegations or statements are relevant to the issues, and the answers are responsive to the questions propounded to said witnesses.
“x x x
“The absolute privilege remains regardless of the defamatory tenor and the presence of malice, if the same are relevant, pertinent or material to the cause in and or subject of the inquiry. Sarcastic, pungent and harsh allegations in a pleading although tending to detract from the dignity that should characterize proceedings in courts of justice, are absolutely privileged, if relevant to the issues. As to the degree of relevancy or pertinency necessary to make the alleged defamatory matter privileged, the courts are inclined to be liberal. The matter to which the privilege does not extend must be so palpably wanting in relation to the subject matter of the controversy that no reasonable man can doubt its irrelevancy and impropriety. x x x
“This Court has no problem with legitimate criticisms of the procedures taken during the preliminary investigation and accused’s comments pointing out flaws in the ruling of the private complainant. They should ever be constructive and should pave the way at correcting the supposed errors in the Resolution and/or convincing the private complainant to inhibit, as she did, from the case. Unfortunately, the Omnibus Motion, or the questioned allegations contained therein, are not of this genre. On the contrary, the accused has crossed the lines as his statements are baseless, scurrilous attacks on the person of the private complainant. The attacks did nothing but damage the integrity and reputation of the private complainant. In fact, the attacks undermined in no small measure the faith and confidence of the litigants in the prosecutorial service.” (Emphasis supplied)
Accordingly, it will be best if you talk to your aunt and caution her that there is a fine line between expressing her thoughts — even in legal proceedings — and libel. Perhaps she should just focus on the issues and the reasons why she thinks the dismissal of her complaint was erroneously made rather than imputing demeaning words against the prosecutor who handled her complaint, especially if those imputations are not relevant to her legal concern.
We hope that we were able to answer your queries. Please be reminded that this advice is based solely on the facts you have narrated and our appreciation of the same. Our opinion may vary when other facts are changed or elaborated.
Editor’s note: Dear PAO is a daily column of the Public Attorney’s Office. Questions for Chief Acosta may be sent to email@example.com