KNOW! Libel, Cyberlibel and Freedom of Speech Laws in the Philippines

Oliver Yuan - Cyberlibel law
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by Atty. Oliver S. Yuan | Libel, Cyberlibel, and Freedom of Speech Laws in the Philippines | Maria Ressa of Rappler was convicted of libel. For sure, many of her supporters will say that the court’s decision is against press freedom and freedom of speech. However, the public should know that freedom of speech is not absolute. I suggest that before we criticize the court decision, we should read its entirety and base our opinion in accordance with the law. Anyway, the court’s decision is still appealable hence, we should respect the law. Here are some further inputs –

The Regional Trial Court Branch 46 of Manila sentenced Maria Angelita Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, Jr., as guilty, beyond reasonable doubt, for Violation of Section 4(c)(4) of Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. Simply stated, Ressa and Santos, Jr. were convicted for the crime of cyberlibel. Maria Angelita Ressa is the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Editor of Rappler, Inc. and Reynaldo Santos, Jr. is a former Researcher/Reporter of Rappler, Inc.

These days, because of the heavy use and heavy reliance of people in the use of the internet or in the use of social media, in order to gather information and as a means of expressing their feelings and thoughts on various matters, a certain act of posting in social media is now considered a crime. For sure, the supporters of Rappler, Inc. will say that the decision of the court curtails press freedom and freedom of speech. Does it?

To give information and impart some legal knowledge, particularly to the non-lawyers, let me state the definition of libel and cyberlibel and discuss its relation to the freedom of speech. Libel under Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code is defined as a public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of 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. Even a deceased person may sue another for libel. However, such deceased person shall be represented his or her heirs or representatives. On the other hand, cyberlibel is defined under R.A. 10175, Section 4(c)(4) as follows:

SEC. 4. Cybercrime Offenses. — The following acts constitute the offense of cybercrime punishable under this Act:

(c) Content-related Offenses:
(4) Libel. — The unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.

R.A. 10175, Section 4(c)(4) mentioned Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, which defines libel as may be committed by means of writing or similar means.

Libel is actually defamation committed by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting or theatrical or cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means. It is cyberlibel when it is committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future, an example of which is the internet. When the defamation is done verbally, it is called oral defamation or slander.
The elements or the requisites for an imputation to be libelous are as follows:

  1. It must be defamatory;
  2. It must be malicious;
  3. It must be given publicity; and
  4. The victim must be identifiable.

What happened in the case of Rappler, Inc.? Let us discuss each element in accordance with the decision rendered by RTC Branch 46 of Manila. On the first (1st) element, is the article published by Rappler, Inc. defamatory? The court said it is because there were several crimes imputed upon the person of the victim, such as human trafficking, drug smuggling and murder. The said crimes tend to dishonor, discredit or put the victim in ridicule.

The article published by Rappler, Inc. created in the minds of ordinary readers that the victim has a disgraceful reputation. In refuting the imputations, the victim presented in court two (2) letters from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) stating that he has no derogatory record on file involving drugs and has no pending case in court. The victim also presented an NBI Clearance showing no criminal record. With that, the first element of libel was established.

On the second (2nd) element, is the article published by Rappler, Inc. malicious? The court said it is, because 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 the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity thereof. The court also said that malice, however, does not necessarily have to be proven. There are two types of malice – malice in law or “presumed malice” and malice in fact or “actual malice.” The court cited the case of “Disini, Jr. versus The Secretary of Justice, wherein the Supreme Court held that to wit:
“But, where the offended party is a private individual, the prosecution need not prove the presence of malice. The law explicitly presumes its existence (malice in law) from the defamatory character of the assailed statement.”

Considering that the victim in this case of Rappler, Inc. is a private individual, malice is presumed to be existing thus, the second element of libel was established.

On the third (3rd) element, is the article of Rappler, Inc. made public or published? The court said that the element of publication was established since it was stipulated during the pretrial that Rappler, Inc. published the defamatory article in its website on May 29, 2012 and was updated February 19, 2014. Since the defamatory article was published in a website, this made the crime cyberlibel.

On the fourth (4th) element, is the victim identifiable? The court said the victim was identifiable because the said victim was particularly named in the article. Moreover, the article mentioned a number of corporations wherein the victim is or became the president of said corporations. Clearly, the fourth element was established.

Rappler, Inc. as one of its defenses argued that the offense charged has already prescribed. However, the court explained that it has not because Section 1 of Act No. 3326 is the one applicable, insofar as the prescription period of special laws which do not provide for their own prescriptive periods, just like R.A. 10175.

In my opinion, RTC Branch 46 of Manila has made the right decision in this case of Rappler, Inc. because it was established that all the elements of cyberlibel were present.

Now, since Rappler, Inc. is considered by many as a media practitioner that provides news and information to the public, via the internet, is the conviction of its CEO, Maria Angelita Ressa, and its former reporter, Reynaldo Santos, Jr., considered a curtailment of press freedom or the freedom of speech? Politicians who are in the opposition are saying that this case against Rappler, Inc. is an example of government silencing and harassing the media. People, please, while it may be true that freedom of speech and press freedom has a Constitutional guarantee, it is NOT ABSOLUTE. It has limitations like (1) libel/cyberlibel, (2) anti-obscenity law, (3) invasion of privacy laws, (4) law on national security (5) contempt of court and (6) copyright law. In the case of Rappler, Inc., it has committed cyberlibel, and therefore it is only proper that it should be charged in court. There is clearly NO curtailment of the freedom of speech and press freedom in the case of Rappler, Inc.

This article is written for the purpose of guiding every reader, particularly the non-lawyers, on how to decipher correctly the social media posts, newspaper articles, television and radio commentaries by those unscrupulous politicians, who will take advantage and advance their causes of selfish personal political interest, by meddling in this issue of Rappler, Inc.

Atty. Oliver S. Yuan

About The Author

Atty. Oliver S. Yuan is a seasoned Trial and Corporate Lawyer, with a banking background. He has worked in the banking industry before for 13 years. For queries, his email address is yuan_lawfirm@yahoo.com.ph.

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