Cyber-libel against public figures like Trillanes

Trillanes filed a case against PCOO ASec. Mocha Uson for three counts of cyber-libel for falsely spreading information about him. One of the charges was for writing online that he had hidden wealth in off-shore bank accounts. But the law in this case isn’t just between Trillanes and Mocha. It involves any person who speaks against Trillanes or any other public personality. Can cyber-libel be filed against them too?

What is cyber-libel?

Cyber-libel is actually just libel that is committed using a computer network. The penalty of cyber-libel is much higher because of the ease and speed that it can be committed.

Libel is defined under Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code. There are two types of libel – (1) libel through written means, and (2) slander, which is essentially libel by use of spoken words.  The Supreme Court summed up the law this way:

Under Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines, libel 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 discredit or cause the dishonor or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead. Thus, the elements of libel are: (a) imputation of a discreditable act or condition to another; (b) publication of the imputation; (c) identity of the person defamed; and, (d) existence of malice. – Supreme Court

You commit libel when you say or write something that discredits another, or attributes some unfavorable condition, which  would affect the way that people would see or interact with that person. That thing you say or write has to be published or publicized in some way. It should clearly identify the person defamed. And lastly, publishing or publicizing must have been done maliciously.

What matters is the presence of malice in publishing or in publicizing those things about the other person.

Libel for politicians and public figures

The Supreme Court removed all the fangs of the libel law and made it into a harmless paper tiger, at least when applied to public officers and public figures. Politicians and other public personalities can threaten to file libel, but it’s just a lot of posturing with no teeth. The cases will probably be dismissed for as long as the other person can show some basis for what they said or wrote. In these cases, the truth is a defense.

The biggest difference between libel against public figures and against private persons deals with the presumption of malice. In libel against private persons, malice is presumed by mere fact of publication. In libel against public figures, malice is NOT presumed.

Our libel laws are criminal in nature. That means that they may abridge freedom of speech or freedom of the press. What would happen if the media or social media were under threat of libel all the time? It would silence people. It would silence our ability to determine or demand accountability for corruption and wrongful acts. In the words of Benjamin Franklin “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” That is why malice is not presumed.

The Supreme Court made sure that this will never happen. In jurisprudence, public officers and public personalities may only win a libel case if it is shown that the writer knew that what he had written was false, or if he had been “recklessly indifferent to its truth or falsity.” This means that the writer would be completely protected against libel if he KNEW he was lying, or was foolishly thinking that he was telling the truth despite contradicting facts staring him in the face. What was written should be clearly false or, if true, should have been written in a way that is clearly malicious.

Our Supreme Court also clarified that a public figure includes any public official (one who works for the government), a famous or notorious person in the community, or one who thrusts himself into some public controversy to influence its resolution (“nakiki-sawsaw”). As an example:

Thus, for example, Jerry Falwell is a public figure and, as a famous case holds, he is barred from recovering against a magazine that portrays him as having had sex with his mother. Movie stars and famous athletes also qualify as public figures. – cited by the Supreme Court

False speech against public figures is very hard to successfully prosecute because public figures are not protected from libel except in very extreme circumstances. It is very hard to prove those circumstances.

For example, how would the normal person on the street or in Facebook know if the information he got from another about the public figure is false? He is not required to research. If he reads it in a source he considers reputable, then any case filed against him would be dismissed.

Media companies, on the other hand, are required to diligently research what it reports. They just can’t report that there is an killing quota for drug pushers without really checking if this is true (that’s an example of something written recklessly indifferent to truth or falsity).

Why are public figures not covered completely by libel laws? First of all, let’s talk about public officers. It is a basic principle that public office is a public trust and that ALL our public officers are accountable to the public. We have an interest not just in their work, but also in their lives. We can write about them, talk about them, and reveal things about them that may have an effect on their office. These include pictures.

For other public figures, the principle is different. They shed their privacy by going into the public eye. By shedding their privacy, they have prepared themselves for invasions of privacy which include defamatory statements made because of their acts or perceptions of their acts.

Don’t be afraid to criticize

We should practice our freedoms so that they would not be taken away. This isn’t just about Trillanes. It is about all public figures. We are free to criticize them, their work, their beliefs, and anything else we don’t like about them. Just make sure you’re not making malicious statements. The Supreme Court defined malicious speech that which is written to injure the reputation of the person defamed.

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. – Supreme Court

As long as you don’t make malicious accusations or make remarks you know to be  false, your speech is protected.

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