The curious case of libel
INTROSPECTIVE - Tony F. Katigbak (The Philippine Star) - February 19, 2019 - 12:00am

Is it really surprising that all – if not most – journalists are wrapped up in the current libel case being filed against Maria Ressa? Beyond the repercussions the outcomes will have for her and media outlet Rappler – the precedent the case is setting will undoubtedly impact all journalists and media outlets for years to come and everyone is watching closely.

Quite frankly, setting aside the entire “press freedom” issue and the government harassment angle (that is another beast altogether), what is really most important for journalists and anyone who attempts to write/publish any type of news or opinion piece or content online is going to be how the courts attempt to define and pursue cyber libel.

Back in my time, libel was pretty straightforward. If an article was published with potentially libelous content – a case could be filed and that was that. Putting a prescription period on it was easy as well because the printed piece was out and available for a limited amount of time. Even if people dug out archives of articles it really wouldn’t make an impact or matter much beyond the one-year time limit to pursue libel charges.

This has been the case for all journalists and because libel was a criminal offense it was always a hovering reminder to be careful what was printed and be ready to present evidence to back up all published claims.

However, times have changed and with the advent of Internet news and Internet publications the case of libel has evolved as well. Published articles are no longer only available for a certain period of time and despite new news coming out regularly and essentially burying old pieces – these articles can be easily searched online and republished for years.

With the new landscape for news and the implementation of the cyber crime law it’s now required to once again clearly define libel and how cyber libel charges will differ from current existing libel laws. I think, at the end of the day, this is what everyone is up in arms about. Those in support of Ressa claim the charges are no longer viable outside the prescription time period – even with the republishing in 2014 – while those who are against are claiming that the rules are different under the new cyber crime law.

At present there are no new existing prescriptions for libel under the cyber crime law. It still defines libel under Article 353 (onwards) of the Revised Penal Code. Based on a cursory reading of the Cyber Crime Law there are no revisions in place to remove libel prescription periods and based on some quick discussions with some lawyer friends the argument of “continuous or multiple publication” isn’t currently valid based on jurisprudence.

And that brings us to the present and the crux of the problem. According to the Department of Justice since the cyber crime is a special law it falls under Republic Act 3326 with a prescription period of 12 years. But this wasn’t specified in the law itself – even after the revisions since it was first enacted. What makes this law special and regular libel laws different? That’s a question I suppose the Supreme Court has to answer definitively.

And at this point everyone will be watching – especially those in the news and those publishing content online. This can all change the way news is written and presented. I hope that they are able to reach a conclusion that is fair and doesn’t impinge on press freedom, which is after all an integral part of a democracy.

* * *

The craziness of the election period is certainly in full swing. Campaigning has begun and we are all being bombarded with information, campaign promises, and candidates out and about trying to secure their spots in the upcoming May elections. It’s a proverbial zoo out there and the noise is just going to keep increasing.

With all the campaign materials being churned out this election season I think it’s important to be able to ensure that the messages are truly approved and come from the candidates themselves. I read in a fellow columnist’s column the other day that it would be prudent to have all campaign materials approved by candidates for sharing and I think that is a really good idea.

Similar to other countries where candidates are required to approve or give consent for ads to be aired or published, I believe this would help greatly reduce the noise of campaign season and make candidates accountable for what comes out. Currently candidates who have campaign materials in violation of existing rules can easily claim that they were not responsible for the offending materials and should not be held liable.

Having candidates approval and consent on all materials will greatly help mitigate this problem and ensure that all the messages we are ingesting are truly their own.

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