Decriminalizing Libel

Decriminalizing Libel

We want to protect freedom of speech, but it is not unlimited freedom of speech. There have always been rules around defamation, slander and libel, and in Victoria, we have effective rules on racial and religious vilification.

— 47th premier of Victoria Denis Napthine

THE first time and only time I attended a hearing of a libel case filed against me was more than two decades ago when I was still connected with the Journal Group of Publications. My complainant was no less than businessman Peter Ng of the Makati Supermarket and owner of the property where Cash ‘n’ Carry now stands.

The old Cash ‘n’ Carry was completely destroyed in a huge fire and one of its tenants, Oscar Tuliao, approached and asked me to write articles on circumstances that hinted that the establishment was burned down purposely by its owner. The articles I wrote subsequently were all based on documents and testimonies but this apparently irked Mr. Ng, so he decided to file charges against me for the alleged libelous stories I wrote.

On the arraignment of my case, I was accompanied by Mr. Tuliao and we were really peeved to learn that the lawyer Mr. Ng had hired belonged to the prestigious law firm ACCRA (Angara Abello Concepcion Regala and Cruz Law Offices). But that didn’t really scare me because I knew I had an ace up my sleeve, and to make a long-story short, I was eventually absolved of the libel charges.

Years later, I was again threatened with another libel case by no less than the late (then) Cavite governor Epimaco Velasco. He told me about his plan to file the case but I replied that before he did file it, he should wait first to receive some documents I accumulated concerning the articles I wrote about him. After that conversation, Gov. Velasco never did file any charge against me.

Finally, the third time a faced a libel complaint was regarding stories I wrote for Police Files Tonite which dealt about prostitution and illegal activities in Manila, particularly in the Malate and Ermita area. This inadvertently prompted me to write about the notorious resto-bar at the corners of Romeo Salas and M.H. Del Pilar streets known as L.A. Café.

I guess my articles hurt the resto-bar’s business, though it was well known for a watering hole of foreigners and expats who frequented the establishment not really for the booze and food but to avail and solicit the service of hookers and call girls as well as procure illegal drugs offered by pimps and even the girls.

The resto-bar owner, Mr. Candado, charged me with libel for the articles I wrote and they even bribed the fiscal to have it elevated to the court. Fortunately, I had some connections so I had the establishment closed on orders of then Manila mayor Joselito Atienza. This forced L.A Café’s owner to tow the line and we eventually became good friends.

From these three cases, I learned that a good journalist can always protect himself against the threat of libel. I found that what my brothers in the profession told me about not being a media man if you were not charged with libel wasn’t true at all.

I still maintain the belief that if a journalist was really careful with what he wrote, then there would be no threats.

Now, recently, calls to decriminalize libel in the country 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 a watchdog against government abuses.

In this we realize that 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.

And in cases of defamation, civil actions—rather than criminal charges—would be a better legal recourse for a person seeking protection. They are actually 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.

As a final word, journalists can better protect themselves from the threat of libel if they avoided telling lies or retelling hearsay. Articles published in newspapers and aired in radio and television should always be based on facts—or else we somehow recall that phrase from the song immortalized by the Castaways:

Liar, liar, pants on fire
Your nose is longer than a telephone wire

Ask me, baby, why I’m sad
You been out all night, know you been bad.

(ai/mtvn)

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