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Libel vis-à-vis cyber libel

"We have to act with circumspection after learning the true facts."



Have you had the urge to impute on someone the commission of a crime without knowledge or while you are uncertain of the facts? Have you ever wanted to pin down a person just because it is going with the wave of public opinion and it seems to be the most logical thing to do? Have you posted on your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts about a contentious subject that you have not verified but shared because you wanted to get in on the bandwagon? Have you passionately supported public issues just because you believe in the trustworthiness of those who advocate the causes without checking the facts? Pause and think before you act further – you may be exposing yourself unknowingly to libel or defamation.

The Revised Penal Code defines libel as a public and malicious imputation of a crime, vice or defect, real or imaginary; or any act, omission or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person (Article 353). According to the case of MVRS Publication, Inc. v. Islamic Da’wah Council, defamation, which includes libel and slander, means the offense of injuring a person’s character, fame or reputation through false and malicious statements (G.R. No. 135306, January 28, 2003). If it is published it is libel, but if it is spoken it is oral defamation. For a statement to be libelous, the following requisites must be present: (a) the statement is defamatory; (b) there is the existence of malice; (c) the statement must be published; and (d) the identity of the person defamed is known (Alonzo v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 110088, February 1, 1995).

To determine whether a statement is defamatory, the words used are to be construed in its entirety and should be taken in their plain, natural and ordinary meaning as they would be understood by the persons reading them, unless they were used and understood in another sense (Novio v. Aggabao, G.R. No. 141332, December 11, 2003). The question is not what the writer of an alleged libel means, but what the words used by him mean. The words describing the offended party as “mandurugas”, “mag-ingat sa panlilinlang”, “matagal na tayong niloloko”, etc. are words used to induce suspicion, and are sometimes more effective in destroying reputations than false charges directly made (Sazon v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 120715, March 29, 1996).

The case of Vasquez v. Court of Appeals explained the requirements of identity, publication and malice. To satisfy the requirement of identity, it must be shown that at least a stranger was able to identify him as the object of the defamatory statement. In simple words, it must be made sure that the person was the one alluded to in the statement. On the other hand, the requirement of publication is satisfied if the written material was communicated to a third person. It is not required that the person read or learned of the libelous statement; what is important is a third party read and learned of the same (G.R. No. 118971, September 15, 1999). Finally, malice must be present. It is must be noted that malice is presumed, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown (Article 354).

There are exceptions to the presumption of malice in libel, and these are: (a) absolute privilege; and (b) qualified privilege. A communication is “absolutely privileged” when it is not actionable even if it was malicious. This includes statements made by members of Congress in the discharge of their legislative functions, official communications made by public officers in the performance of their duties, and allegations in pleadings and motions in judicial proceedings, as well as by witnesses in reply to questions propounded to them (Orfanel v. People of the Philippines, G.R. No. L-26877, December 26, 1969). On the other hand, communication is “qualifiedly privileged” when a statement, even if containing defamatory imputations, is not actionable unless made with malice and in bad faith. This includes a private communication made by a person to another in the performance of any legal, moral, or social duty, or a fair and true report made in good faith without comments or remarks of any judicial, legislative, or other official proceedings that are not of a confidential nature (Article 354).

Qualified privileged communication has to some extent been abused by some news correspondents, reporters, columnist and editors since they can “cherry pick” portions of an official proceeding to suit the report and story they want the public to understand. By doing this, they are able to frame the mind of the readers towards their biases and prejudices. This is the reason why we find different written materials or news reports presenting different angles of the same story. To the mind of this writer, if the facts are intentionally or unintentionally incomplete or skewed , the conclusion will definitely vary.

How then is cyber libel committed? It is the commission of unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code through a computer system or any other similar means (Section 4 (b)(4), Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012). Cyber libel is committed in the same manner as libel except for the medium of its commission which is through a computer system or device. The Regional Trial Court has jurisdiction on both libel and cyber libel. The difference lies in the venue of filing for the action, which in turn depends on the nature of the offended person. If the offended party is a public officer, the action will be filed in the place where he holds office or where the written material was first published; while if the offended party is a private individual, the action will be filed in the place where he resides or where the written material was first published (Article 360).

For cyber libel, the venue is the province or city where any of its elements have been committed, where any part of the computer system used is situated, or where any of the damage caused to a natural or juridical person took place (Section 22, Implementing Guidelines of the Cybercrime Prevention Act). Another difference between libel and cyber libel is the prescriptive period. For libel, it prescribes in 1 year despite the penalty of prisión correccional in its minimum and medium periods (6 months and 1 day to 4 years and 2 months) or a fine ranging from forty thousand pesos (₱40,000) to one million two hundred thousand pesos (₱1,200,000), or both.

For cyber libel, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 is silent on the prescriptive period. However, one view is that the prescriptive period is 12 years based on Act 3326, where cyber libel can be considered a crime under a special law, for which the penalty for the offense is prisión correccional in its maximum period (4 years 2 months and 1 day to 6 years) to prisión mayor in its minimum period (6 years and 1 day to 8 years) or a fine ranging from six thousand pesos (P6,000.00) up to the maximum amount determined by Court. Another view is that the prescriptive period of cyber libel is 1 year, much like libel, since the special law makes a specific reference to Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code. For sure, this will be a question of law to be interpreted by the Supreme Court in the near future.

With the understanding of these laws, we have to be responsible in the choice of our words and the language that we use in our communication. It does not mean that we will not speak or write about what we believe in, but we have to act with circumspection after learning the true facts. This is not only to avoid libel or cyber libel but to maintain good human relations since “words once spoken can never be recalled” (Horace’s Art of Poetry Made English, Fourth Earl of Roscommon, 1680). 

Topics: Tranquil G.S. Salvador III , libel , cyber libel , Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012
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