By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
At a forum on decriminalization of libel held to mark World Press Freedom Day last May 4, 2012 at Theodore Buttenbruch Hall of University of San Carlos in Cebu City, Rore Jon Sepulveda, a Capitol consultant, spoke on why public officials sue for libel.
Public officials can talk back on criticisms and correct errors under right of reply. They’re public figures the Supreme Court says must not be onion-skinned as the “balm of clear conscience” lessens the pain. Still, they sue.
Rore Jon, whom the audience expected to disagree, didn’t. Instead, he clarified that Gov. Gwen Garcia filed only two complaints, “unfortunately, against the same person.”
“We sue as a last priority,” he said. (He must mean “as a last recourse”; dragging a journalist to court even as a last priority would still have precedence in time or importance over many other concerns.)
At least Rore Jon’s client hasn’t been shooting from the hip when it comes to libel, unlike another politician whose threats of suing are now standard issue.
There are public officials and public officials who file libel complaints, including:
1) those who don’t know libel law and Supreme Court decisions on libel and don’t listen to lawyers who advise them their case has slim chance of standing up in court or before prosecutors;
2) those who don’t usually litigate but are refused right of reply or repeatedly thrashed with personal attacks on matters not related to their office and in grossly offensive language;
3) those who fume over criticism, though valid and reasonable, hate journalists who don’t praise them all the time, and want payback; and
4) those who use libel to protest claimed innocence or silence critics and overcome a bad press.
Colleagues in the industry have met all kinds of suers, with varied moods but similar vengefulness.
The mean ones
Mean complainants are the worst, including:
–those who gloat when the journalist has to travel to Makati, Quezon, or Ilocos to heed a subpoena;
–those who “fix” the police to have the journalist arrested on a holiday or weekend;
–those who’re authorized by the local government unit to sue only a rival politician but throw in the journalists as well;
–those who use power over allowances of prosecutors and judges to influence the ruling, though their lawyers know a higher court will reverse it.
There are also bastards in media, who use computer or microphone to spew out drivel but they are few and usually are not the ones haled to court. Many libel complaints target responsible practitioners read or listened to by their public.
The Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC), expressing sentiment of local journalists, asks that the prison term be taken out but wants libel to remain a crime.
Will harassment from mean public officials–such as the spouse of a former president who slapped 45 journalists with 10 libel cases–cease if the jail penalty is scrapped?
Most likely not, as being mean is a stubborn streak, but it will remove jagged edge and sharpness of libel as instrument to harass.
The journalists who wish to keep it as a crime are willing to face threat of sanction if justly deserved.