The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Libel

Paulo Romeo J. Yusi

Libel is one of the most the controversial crimes currently present in Philippine law. Countless debates have raged on between its proponents and detractors, with both sides equally relentless about their respective positions. However, just like anything else in the world, the wisdom behind the continuing criminalization of libel is a complicated one. Both sides of the divide possess convincing and sober points that deserve consideration.

Those in favor of criminalizing libel would be quick to point out that libel is unprotected speech. Hence, any argument that asserts that libel sweeps so broadly as to encompass protected speech misses the point. Libel can never be protected speech and vice-versa. As explained by Justice Tinga in Guingguing v. Court of Appeals, “[c]riminal libel stands as a necessary qualification to any absolutist interpretation of the free speech clause, if only because it prevents the proliferation of untruths which if unrefuted would gain an undue influence in the public discourse.”

Moreover, they can argue that the supposed weaponization of libel laws against the press and active citizenship is preventable not by decriminalization, but by speedier and more judicious decision-making on the part of investigating prosecutors and judges. Harassment suits should and will be carefully weeded out from the pile and thrown out immediately.

Lastly, proponents of libel will stress that libel laws exist to protect the emotional and psychological well-being of individuals.

To note, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, once wrote that, before, the “right to life” served only to protect individuals from injury in the physical sense. That is perhaps why our Revised Penal Code is littered with felonies about bodily injury (i.e., physical injuries, homicide, mutilation, etc.). However, as time went on, regard for human emotions expanded the scope of personal immunity beyond the body of the individual. Thoughts, emotions, and sensations began to demand just as much legal recognition. Libel is one such product of this development.

Certainly, with the rise of the internet and social media, the effects of defamatory statements on an individual have substantially worsened. Such statements can now cause people to lose their livelihoods and social standing, not to mention plunge them in a deep and sometimes inescapable hole of depression. Given that, it can be argued that the prospect of civil damages is no longer enough to give a sense of justice to victims of libel. Rather, only the threat of a criminal record and a penal sanction can suffice given the unquantifiable nature of the injury.

Conversely, detractors of libel are determined not only in their call to revisit the said law, but to abolish it altogether.

Just last December 2022, Senator Risa Hontiveros filed Senate Bill No. 1593, otherwise known as “An Act Decriminalizing Libel.” In her explanatory note, she explained that “libel laws have been used and abused by private parties to advance their various interests, and by public personalities to shield themselves from scrutiny, even on matters of public concern.” She added further that the abuse of the said law has only been heightened by the rise and prevalence of social media as the populace’s primary medium of communication. The abuse of the libel laws is not surprising. Filipinos are, after all, infamous for their litigious nature. It naturally follows therefore that those who have found themselves scorned in public would attempt to seek a legal counterattack against those that they feel have wronged them.

However, even beyond the issue of its weaponization, libel has always been a contentious crime, with some feeling that the wording of the law under the Revised Penal Code is not commensurate to the gravity of the act committed by the accused.

For one, the current imposable imprisonment penalty for libel under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code is prision correccional in its minimum and medium periods (i.e., 6 months and 1 day to 4 years and 2 months). For some, this length of jail time is too heavy a price to pay for uttering obnoxious speech.

To remedy this, Congress may reduce the penalty of imprisonment to arresto menor (i.e., 1 day to 1 month) not only to be in keeping with felonies with a comparable level of seriousness such as slight physical injuries and unjust vexation, but also to render the accused eligible for community service under Republic Act No. 11362 if convicted. With this, those convicted of cyberlibel, which shall then be punished with arresto mayor (i.e., 1 month and 1 day to 6 months), will also still be eligible for community service.

Another problematic thing of concern about Philippine libel is the presumption of malice. As it currently stands, “[e]very defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown[.]” This presumption has the effect of reversing the presumption of innocence in favor of the accused by immediately placing the latter on the defensive. As aptly noted by Justice Vicente V. Mendoza, “the burden of showing that the defendant acted with malice should be on the prosecution” rather than the accused.

Libel is a double-edged sword. For victims of defamatory utterances, it is a life saver; for journalists and outspoken social media users, however, it is their worst nightmare. The issue of whether libel should be retained or decriminalized is one that deserves long and impassioned debates. In deciding its future, legislators must balance taking into account current circumstances, while at the same not being prisoners of the moment.

This article is only for general informational and educational purposes and is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice or opinion.

Paulo Romeo J. Yusi is an Associate of the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices (ACCRALAW).

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