By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
 Earlier related topic in Media’s Public: Why public officials sue for libel, May 12, 2012
Suing for libel should be the last recourse of public officials, made only after weighing benefit against cost or, as a p.r. practitioner morbidly quipped, only when the other option is shooting the offending journalist or having him shot.
Talking about violence as an option is not being flippant, which is unseemly and insensitive in a country where practicing journalism is compared, on number of deaths, to surviving in a war zone. The intent is to heighten the plea to those in government not to sue journalists.
Why should they not sue journalists?
Here are the major reasons:
–The public official has multiple platforms to mount in answering accusation or criticism, the higher the rank the easier the access to media.
Reply is often many times over and a lot more than the news or comment answered.
If, say, the mayor or governor airs a reply to the press for a published item, all or most newspapers and TV will carry the reply. Even a single paragraph in the gossip section is answered in a full-blown news story in print and broadcast, not just in the paper where the answered item was published but in other newspapers and in TV news broadcasts as well.
The disproportion is lopsidedly in favor of the public official. Do most journalists even realize that?
Seen as a bully
–The public official will be perceived as a bully who harasses the journalist to get even or to silence criticism with the might of rank or power.
To his constituents, he’ll appear as “onion-skinned” who ignores the Supreme Court advise for public officials to be “assuaged by the balm of clear conscience.”
He can be seen as so self-absorbed in his importance or abilities that he can accept only praise, not criticism.
–The public official has a higher bar to hurdle to succeed in his lawsuit. He has to prove malice as an essential element of the crime.
He knows, or must know, how courts generally decide in favor of press freedom, not its restraint, and open, un-stifled criticism of public conduct.
Read the long line of decisions of the Supreme Court, which must instruct prosecutors and lower courts, that unless the defamation is clear, malicious, and repetitiously systematic, the journalist is upheld.
Longer shelf life
In comparing cost against benefit, legal and other financial matters are not just the items to add up.
How would the lawsuit affect the image of the public official? The burden could be heavier, p.r.-wise. His relations with media could sour, especially if he comes out as harasser and oppressor because he’s intolerant of criticism.
The issue litigated, which hurts the public official (that’s why he sues), could extend its life on the shelf. It would recur every time a development of the case is reported as trial drags on.
And here’s a dangerous trend started by one local public official: suing for libel a rival in the heat of election debate.
The official was the mayor before he sought a seat in the House. Few could be more public than he. He should’ve accepted full scrutiny by his rivals. He should’ve not complained when in the verbal exchange, his rival accused him of disrupting the work of a group of supporters.
The official didn’t just complain publicly, in the media that reported his rival’s statement, he went to court.
Two dreadful things happened: 1) He stopped debate on the issue litigated and 2) he dragged to court the journalists who merely reported the two sides of the story.
The prosecutor dropped the case against the journalists but raised the charge against the rival politician in court. That must have so traumatized the rival that he defected to the camp of the bully who then dropped the charge.
Journalists aren’t being gunned down in Cebu but dragging them with rivals of politicians to libel lawsuits could be devastating too.