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Libel, and Choosing your Battles

11:48 pm PHT

Two weeks ago, a few bloggers and I got to talk to a journalist who had the experience of being charged with libel and spending overnight in jail. I won’t mention the journalist’s name because she requested it, but the insights she provided about libel were quite enlightening, to say the least, especially since bloggers are affected by it too.

Anyway, the topic of libel came up because of Brian Gorrell’s blog and the surrounding controversy that’s been taking the Pinoy blogosphere and Manila high society by storm. Brian, as well as many of his supporters, had been booing the mainstream media for not mentioning the names of various incriminated individuals. The reason why journalists had been skirting the issue is because of libel. Yuga relayed some of the opinions of lawyers about the controversy in relation to libel in a blog post and got flak for it from Brian’s supporters.

Well, I thought that the media was being too cautious about the whole thing. It was only when we talked to the aforementioned journalist that I got to see where the media was coming from. In a nutshell, the sentiment of the media is that this issue is not worth sticking ones neck out for the harassment of libel when one can do away with reporting on the scandal without mentioning names (or showing unblurred photographs).

If the issue is a matter of public interest (which is altogether different from what the public is interested in, like Brian’s blog), then going into defamation territory is warranted especially since the media has resources for defense if needed (e.g., the libel cases of First Gentleman Mike Arroyo). In the case of Brian Gorrell, the issue is simply not worth risking the potential for libel (compared with, say, the NBN-ZTE scandal) even if the plaintiffs won’t win. The problem is, libel has been used as a tool for intimidation and harassment especially if the libel suit is unlikely to win in the first place. The journalist we talked to mentioned that the libel case she and a few others were charged with was eventually dismissed but getting detained in a jail is so much trouble.

Hence, the takeaway is that journalists and the media need to choose their battles. And Brian Gorrell’s story, unfortunately, is not a libel battle worth fighting over; thus the need to play safe.

I guess there really is a need to decriminalize libel, defamation, and slander so that there is no unnecessary muzzling of the press. To expound more on that topic, I’d like to point you instead, to this excellent article by Luis Teodoro on libel in the Philippines.

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Comments

Comment times are in Philippine time (+0800).

1

On 11:10 p.m., 14 Apr 2008, Mike wrote:

We should do what the US did in 1964… change the nature of libel law so it punishes only when the publisher is aware that the information is false, or published with reckless disregard of whether it’s false or not. The Philippine press is so gleefully irresponsible, there would still be cases of that. It would still punish people, just those that deserve to be punished.

That Teodoro article says the US decriminalized libel, which isn’t totally true.

2

This comment has been jettisoned.

3

On 5:51 p.m., 18 Apr 2008, seav wrote:

@Mike, now that I didn’t know. But I prefer reckless journalists with regards to public figures than abusive politicians weilding the libel card.

4

On 11:01 a.m., 23 Jun 2008, Mike wrote:

Picture this… a local newspaper’s editor demands that a town mayor increase subscription to 50 copies of the newspaper in exchange for the town being portrayed in a good light. Angry at the extortion, the mayor cancels the subscription altogether, and true to their word no good news about the town whatsoever comes out in the following years.

Seeing an opportunity, the mayor’s opposition plots with the editor, and the next week a story shows up with utterly false and libelous insinuations of corruption. The accusation has no truth to it, but maligns the good official’s name and potentially cripples his career.

Summary, I have less faith now than I did last week that the media would keep in line if libel was legalized. I’ll probably make my own blog entry when I’m less riled up.

5

On 4:27 p.m., 29 Jun 2008, seav wrote:

@Mike, yes, it goes both ways—both the media and the people the media report on can abuse the legal status of libel if it favors them. But I don’t think that the media is generally more corrupt than politicians here in the Philippines, hence a need to adjust legislation to help the media (and increasingly, bloggers/forumers/etc.) more. Hopefully a balance can be made.

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