SC raises points against law that makes libel a crime
Calls to decriminalize libel in the country may have received a boost by way of a landmark Supreme Court ruling that cleared broadcast media personality Raffy Tulfo, who was earlier sued and convicted for what he wrote about 22 years ago as a tabloid columnist.
The tribunal said the constitutionality of the country’s laws defining libel as a criminal offense was “doubtful,” as it underscored the role played by a critical media as watchdog against government abuses.
“In libel, the kinds of speech actually deterred are more valuable than the state interest the law against libel protects,” the high court’s Third Division said as it reversed a Pasay City court’s decision convicting Tulfo in 2005 for 14 counts of libel.
In a 57-page ruling dated Jan. 11 but was released to the media only on Tuesday, the Supreme Court said “the constitutionality of criminalizing libel is doubtful.”
“We regard the vital role that the media plays in ensuring that the government and its officials remain true to their oath in carrying out their mandates in a manner prescribed by law,” the high court said.
Aside from Tulfo, also acquitted were Allen Macasaet and Nicolas Quijano, then the publisher and managing editor, respectively, of the tabloid Abante Tonite.
The libel cases were filed by lawyer Carlos So of the Bureau of Customs, whose alleged extortion activities and other illegal dealings were a subject of Tulfo’s column “Shoot to Kill” in 1999.
The local court’s conviction of Tulfo and the other respondents was affirmed by the Court of Appeals (CA) in 2006.
But later acting on their motion for reconsideration, the CA amended its decision in 2009, acquitting them in eight of the 14 counts. The respondents then elevated their appeal to the Supreme Court with regard to the convictions upheld by the CA.
“[W]ithout a vigilant press, the government’s mistakes would go unnoticed, their abuses unexposed and their wrongdoings uncorrected,” said the Supreme Court ruling penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, with the concurrence of Associate Justices Ramon Paul Hernando, Henri Jean Paul Inting, Edgardo delos Santos and Ricardo Rosario.
Libel cases earlier tackled by the high court “generally involve[d] notable personalities for parties, highlighting a propensity for the powerful and influential to use the advantages of criminal libel to silence their critics,” the magistrates noted.
“Our libel laws must not be broadly construed as to deter comments on public affairs and the conduct of public officials. Such comments are made in the exercise of the fundamental right to freedom of expression and the press,” they stressed.
Civil actions, rather than criminal charges, could be a better legal recourse for a person seeking protection against defamation, the ruling said.
“[They are] more consistent with our democratic values since they do not threaten the constitutional right to free speech and avoid the unnecessary chilling effect on criticisms toward public officials,” it added. “The proper economic burden on complainants of civil actions also reduces the possibility of using libel as a tool to harass or silence critics and dissenters.”
In siding with the respondents, the high court said Tulfo’s failure to get So’s comment on the allegations leveled against the customs official did not mean that the articles were malicious.
It said journalists may write single-sourced articles “for as long as the reporter does not entertain a ‘high degree of awareness of [its] probable falsity.’”
“Nevertheless, the constitutionally protected freedoms enjoyed by the press cannot be used as a shield to advance the malicious propagation of false information carried out by unscrupulous entities to injure another’s reputation,” the court maintained.
“The acquittal meted out to petitioners does not mean that journalists have unbridled discretion in publishing news and information below the standards expected of them,” it said.
Among the media groups calling for the repeal of the law making libel a criminal offense is the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the country’s biggest organization of media practitioners. INQ
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