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How to avoid being sued for libel

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Greg B. Macabenta

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How to avoid being sued for libel

The libel case that caused the arrest of Maria Ressa of Rappler has had a chilling effect on journalists who post their hard-hitting anti-government columns online, as well as folks who love to expose other people’s dirty laundry on social media.

We are now forewarned. We could spend up to 12 years in prison, with no possibility of parole, if found guilty of libel using the Internet. The penalty for online libel is more severe than libel committed in print media. This is based on the provisions of the anti-cybercrime law, Republic Act 10175.

The guys at my favorite watering hole in Daly City have varying reactions to the law. Some actually like it, while others think it is an infringement of the Freedom of Speech.

Pete, who is in favor of the anti-cybercrime law, is also known in town as Pedrong Playboy. Someone posted on Facebook a photo of him and a girlfriend and that got him into trouble with his wife.




Another pro-cybercrime advocate is Gerry who was said he was the victim of online slander committed by a self-appointed “investigative journalist.” He sued the slanderer and won a judgment that required the defendant to pay $15,000 in damages. However, the defendant claimed that he was insolvent and had no money and no assets in his name.

Under US law, slander is a civil offense for which one cannot be jailed but only made to pay for damages. If you claim to be insolvent, you can’t be forced to pay and can’t be jailed, either. Thus, Gerry has not been able to collect any money, while the slanderer boasts that he is “judgment proof.”

Most of the guys who frequent the watering hole are free speech advocates and media practitioners. In fact, some of them fled to the US as exiles from the Marcos dictatorship, while others privately admit that they fled after the EDSA revolt toppled Marcos.

“The way I criticize Philippine public officials and politicians, I could go to jail in the Philippines,” says Joe, who writes a regular opinion piece for a local FilAm paper. “I’m glad I’m in the US.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” cuts in Danny from the bar. “You post your opinion pieces on social media, thus making you liable even in the Philippines where your articles are also read.”

“I guess they could sue me, but they’ll have to extradite me first,” says Joe with a chuckle. “That would never happen,”

“Yeah but what happens if you go to the Philippines on vacation,” says Danny, half-seriously. “Baka sa airport pa lang, ma-aresto ka na!”

Buti kung aresto lang,” butts in Gerry. “Baka ma-Ninoy ka pa!” He alludes to the assassination of Ninoy Aquino upon arriving in Manila.

Joe, who was among the newsmen picked up and detained at Camp Crame, following the declaration of martial law, still thinks he is lucky that he is no longer writing for Manila media. According to him, the House of Representatives is planning to amend Article 3, Section 4 of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which states “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

“Those damn congressmen want to add the modifier ‘responsible exercise of the freedom of speech’ to the law,” says Joe. “In other words, when you criticize them for corruption or incompetence all they need to do is declare that you have not done so responsibly. On that basis, they can file charges against you.”

Gerry recalls, with a snicker, how President Cory Aquino sued Philippine Star columnist Luis Beltran, along with editor-in-chief Max Soliven, for libel for claiming that she hid under her bed during a coup attempt.

The president was so incensed that she even brought reporters to her bedroom to show that there was not enough space to hide under her bed. She pursued her case and won a favorable judgment that sentenced both defendants to two years in jail plus P2 million in moral damages. However, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision and acquitted Beltran and Soliven.

“Ah but there are ways of avoiding a libel suit,” says Danny, who is also a veteran journalist and is familiar with libel cases in the Philippines. “You simply have to be careful when you write your opinion pieces. First of all, make sure your facts are correct. No fake news. And make sure, there is no malice in your statement.”

“Otherwise,” Joe cuts in, “You should use the journalist’s favorite device — say ‘allegedly’ or ‘reportedly’ or ‘according to sources.’ That way, you have wiggle room or palusot.”

Johnny, who has been following the discussion, lights up at this. “The champion magpalusot of all was Damian Soto. He was a radio commentator in the 50s. He would say, “Did I call you a magnanakaw? No I did not. Did I call you kriminal? No I did not. Pero, he already called you a thief and a criminal.”

“But the best palusot of all,” declares Danny, “is that newspaper headline that stated, ‘Half of the people in Congress are crooks!’ When the members of Congress threatened to sue unless the newspaper put out a retraction, the following day’s headline read: ‘Half of the people in Congress are not crooks!’”

 

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.

gregmacabenta@hotmail.com