THE recent Supreme Court decision to uphold the online-libel provision in the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 as constitutional has not resolved the general libel laws in the Philippines.
Libel is defined as the publication of words and/or images that damage the good reputation of a person or legal entity. The question of which published statements are considered libelous goes back at least 2,000 years to ancient Rome. During the time, it was established that even if negative comments about a person were true, it could be considered libelous and as going against proper public behavior. A person was protected from unnecessary public humiliation, insults and shame.
The defense against libel has evolved to where a person accused of libelous behavior could respond that the offensive statements he or she made were true and that these were being disseminated for the greater public good. But if the statements were made public only to hurt someone’s reputation, then the libel law could be invoked. Further, there is a difference between the application of libel laws to a public figure and that to a private citizen.
However, libel laws have never been fixed or completely clear. Sometimes, false statements, if made without malice and believed as true, could be deemed nonlibelous. Calling another person foolish could be acceptable if it was only the name-caller’s opinion. If a newspaper published an article that said a person “acted” as though he or she was crooked, that could either be an opinion or a fair comment on a matter of public interest.
Truly, libel laws, whether criminal or civil, are confusing and subject to many interpretations.
But one thing is clear. In 2011 the United Nations Human Rights Council described the Philippine libel law as “excessive,” antiquated and in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which the country is a signatory.
The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility reported on March 10 that “Mindanao Gold Star Daily Editor in Chief Herbie Gomez has been charged with criminal libel for publishing allegedly libelous advertisements in 2012. Contending factions in a lending company placed the ads sometime in September 2012, after which one faction filed a libel case against the other, implicating Gomez and the newspaper.”
In other words, a newspaper that publishes an advertisement from private citizens criticizing other private citizens is now facing prosecution.
This is not acceptable.
It is important that free speech is not censored or threatened with criminal prosecution. It is also important that a person or legal entity must have protection against unwarranted, false and/or malicious statements. Congress must create laws that will maintain a balance between these two basic human rights. Also, the media should not be given the job of deciding what is libelous or not under threat of prosecution.
It is time for the legislature to take responsibility and do its job of making realistic and proper laws on this issue.