By By Atty. Romulo P. Atencia
Libel
posted 11-Jun-2016  ·  
4,088 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

Homo sapiens (Latin: "wise person") is the species to which all human beings belong. They have always treasured the right to communicate to others what is in their mind; the right to voice one's opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment.  But kings and despots have consistently denied this right to their subjects. Libertarians have to fight hard for the recognition of Freedom of Speech. One of the advocates of free speech in the 18th century was François-Marie Arouet, known by his  nom de plume  Voltaire, who was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit. To him is arguably attributed the phrase: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".

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The civil liberties we have today took almost a thousand years to painstakingly evolve. In the end, a Bill of Rights was incorporated in the U.S. constitution. It has been incorporated in all Philippine fundamental laws as well as, now, in Article III of the 1987 Philippine Constitution which provides: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” (at Section 4). As seen, "speech" is not limited to public speaking and is generally taken to include other forms of expression.

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Nonetheless, freedom of speech is not absolute. It must not do violence to the rights of others. As our professor in law school used to say: “You can stretch your arms as far out as you want as long as it does not touch your neighbor’s nose.” There are indeed instances when the basic right of individuals to their honor and reputation may clash with the correspondingly basic right of free speech. That is one problem which has long beset democracies for a long time. It has been said that the dilemma dates back at least to ancient Greece when the Athenians, who cherished individual freedom, nevertheless prosecuted Socrates for his teachings, claiming that he had corrupted young people and insulted the gods.

Socrates (470/469 – 399 BC),  a  classical   Greek  (Athenian)  philosopher  was arrested and tried for his attempts to improve the Athenians' sense of justice. He was found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of impiety ("not believing in the gods of the state"), and subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock. Socrates is said to have spoken to the jury at his trial: “If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind... I should say to you, ‘Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.’”

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Press freedom is not absolute. Defamation is punished as the crime of libel. The Revised Penal Code provides: “Art. 353. Definition of libel. — A libel is 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.” … “Art. 354. Requirement for publicity. — Every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown, except in the following cases: 1. A private communication made by any person to another in the performance of any legal, moral or social duty; and 2. A fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments or remarks, of any judicial, legislative or other official proceedings which are not of confidential nature, or of any statement, report or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions.” 

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Based on the statutory definition of libel, the Supreme Court held in the landmark case of Art Borjal and Max Soliven, well-known writers and newspaper columnists - co-founders of The Philippine Daily Inquirer – that fair commentaries on matters of public interest are privileged and constitute a valid defense in an action for libel or slander. “… The doctrine of fair comment means that while in general every discreditable imputation publicly made is deemed false, because every man is presumed innocent until his guilt is judicially proved, and every false imputation is deemed malicious, nevertheless, when the discreditable imputation is directed against a public person in his public capacity, it is not necessarily actionable. In order that such discreditable imputation to a public official may be actionable, it must either be a false allegation of fact or a comment based on a false supposition. If the comment is an expression of opinion, based on established facts, then it is immaterial that the opinion happens to be mistaken, as long as it might reasonably be inferred from the facts.”

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So, it is difficult to convict a newspaperman as truth is a recognized defense to libel. To again quote the SC  in a 2006 case: “…in order to safeguard against fears that the public debate might be muted due to the reckless enforcement of libel laws, truth has been sanctioned as a defense, much more in the case when the statements in question address public issues or involve public figures.”  In fact, even if the defamatory statement turned out to be false, conviction for libel would still not be easy. The SC held in an earlier case decided in 1999, thus: “… even if the defamatory statement is false, no liability can attach if it relates to official conduct, unless the public official concerned proves that the statement was made with actual malice—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. This is the gist of the ruling in the landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan, which this Court has cited with approval in several of its own decisions. This is the rule of ‘actual malice’.”

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CONCLUSION:  Public officials and public figures must not be thin-skinned. Their acts are always subject to public scrutiny.

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