By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
Four recent libel cases filed in Cebu City, one in Davao del Norte, and one in Quezon City highlight internet libel: alleged defamatory statements posted on Facebook, Twitter, and in blogs.
A nurse from Talisay, City sued two relatives for smearing her reputation on Facebook. A call center in Lahug, Cebu City sued a man who wrote on Facebook that the firm was an illegal recruiter. Talent manager Annabelle Rama filed in Cebu City libel complaints against former actresses Amalia Fuentes and Nadia Montenegro for “damaging” remarks in their Twitter accounts.
The complaints, lodged during the last six months, all arise from social media. Did you read about any print or broadcast journalist charged lately with libel?
Many people look up Facebook or Twitter more often than they read the papers. But writers’ lack of training and absence of editing in social media could be the reason for the recent rash of libel cases in the web world.
Mainstream media writers went to journalism school and are coached about their job, especially on avoiding libel. And their work passes editors who watch out for material that invites lawsuits. That doesn’t always prevent litigation but it has helped a lot in reducing number and intensity of complaints.
Few writers end up as journalists in regular media. In contrast, the internet is open to everyone, most of whom don’t know where the figurative mines are buried until they explode in their faces when they’re haled to court.
Speed and ease with which one can post a comment may have lulled many users into thinking there’s nothing to answer for: no responsibility for what one tweets or blogs.
Accountability, internet users must think, belongs only to news reporters, editors, and publishers of regular news organizations. Not at the internet when one can write as quickly as one can delete. With no editor to review, they can be free as they wish to be.
Or so they must think, since, unlike in regular media, they can:
–Make any comment, no matter how inane, irrelevant, or injurious it may be: type and press “send,” it’s out there for friends and even “unfriends” (who get it from friends) to read;
–Hide under a silly false name, which apparently supplies the courage to say anything, even if it defames or slanders.
Not totally free
The surge of libel cases lately must tell internet users they’re not totally free. At least on sites with mechanisms for identification, wrongdoers can be traced and made to answer charges before prosecutor or court.
A Regional Trial Court in Davao del Norte dismissed libel charges against two Bombo Radyo broadcasters filed by a Customs official because, the court ruled, there was no law as basis for punishing journalists for libel on the internet.
A Quezon City Trial Court threw out the complaint filed against a psychiatrist and two bloggers by parents of that boy, 6, who performed an erotic dance on Willy Revillame’s TV show not for the absence of a law but for insufficient evidence. The attacks were on Willie, not the complainant-parents.
Prosecutors and judges, at least many of them, act on complaints filed with their offices or salas because they believe internet libel is covered by existing provisions in the Revised Penal Code. Like television, also a johnny-come-lately, though much earlier than the internet, it is deemed included in the phrase “or any similar means” (of committing libel).
The high tribunal or Congress, may soon fill gaps in jurisprudence and law on internet writing. Legal basis for a complaint on internet libel needs to be spelled out, including the liability of:
–Blog owners and web site administrators: will they be as liable as newspaper publishers and broadcast managers and owners?;
–Conduits like Google and Facebook or Twitter: don’t they provide the means for the crime?
But it would be more gladdening if the industry sets up the rules. Self-regulation has worked, though in varying stages of success in regular media. Could it even be tried in the wild frontiers of internet?
It could take some time but restraints imposed on regular media are crucial to social media whose technology is awesome and lethal.
Regular media can’t be said to be entirely free of lapses and errors regarding libel, or on other journalism standards, but they’ve worked at it for decades.
Rules keep them in check. And there has been increasing awareness of the power of the word and how it can wound feelings and destroy reputations.
We may yet see editors or their equivalent (administrators) in at least sensitive sections of social media. Editors are intrusive and annoying but they see to it that focus of story is kept and comment rational, they help keep out bad grammar and faulty syntax–and they fend off the lawsuits.