On libel
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - January 18, 2020 - 12:00am

How many libel suits have you had?”

One of my students in Introduction to Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University three years ago asked me that question after class, after we had taken up the chapter on media ethics and libel.

Under Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) libel is defined as “a public and malicious imputation of a crime, a vice or a defect, real or imaginary, or an act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”

The Court of Appeals also ruled that defamation made on TV is also considered libel, aside from what the law says is broadcast on radio, printed in books, or shown on films and plays. Of course, we now have cyber-libel: to like a social-media post doesn’t make you liable for it, but to repost it and thus spread it, opens you to the possibility of a libel suit.

This was what we discussed in class, and I gave examples of libel in our jurisprudence. And then a bright student asked me, in wide-eyed wonder, if I had been slapped with a libel suit.

“Three people have threatened to file libel suits against me,” I said, picking up my books. I told him that one of the libel suits stemmed from a column I wrote about a publisher – who worked for the government – who was lobbying for his textbooks to be required in the schools. I had documentation for that, but the publisher threatened to file a libel suit.

I sought advice from the late Dr. Doreen G. Fernandez, who was then our chairperson in the department of communications, and she asked to see the letter. Her frown turned to a naughty smile and then to wicked laughter while reading the letter.

Like a golf course, the letter was filled with grammatical holes. It was also written in a style that can only be charitably described as “constipated.” And yet, the publisher wanted it to appear in my column, as written. So Doreen said, “Why don’t you ask your editor-in-chief if you could publish this?”

So I did. Malou Mangahas, my editor-in-chief, read the letter, and said, “Go ahead, make my day!” We published his letter in my column, and I entitled his letter, “Verbatimly Yours.” I did not correct his grammatical errors like ticks crawling in a dog’s fur. He withdrew his libel suit after a week, and I do not know who became the laughing stock after that.

The second instance was when I wrote a column to defend Ruvic Rea, a transgender woman in Tayabas, Quezon, and a member of Ladlad Party-list. Ruvic used to run a restaurant in front of a school, but since she also served beer, she made sure her restaurant was more than 500 meters away from the school, as mandated by law.

But one night, a drunken councilor barged into the restaurant after its closing hours and grabbed Ruvic. Now Ruvic is tall and beautiful and could pass the screening in the Binibining Pilipinas beauty pageant. The councilor ripped her blouse, mashed her breasts, and twisted her nipples. All this was witnessed by her two waiters. She fought back, naturally, and her waiters helped drive away the drunken councilor. Her medico-legal report showed many bruises and contusions.

Ladlad Party-list filed an administrative case and a criminal case against the councilor. I also wrote about it in my column in the Philippine STAR. The councilor fired off a letter threatening to file a libel suit against me. But most curiously, his letter said: “I will filed a libel suit against you for destroying my reputations.” I do not know in what dimension of the space-time continuum he was in, for his past and future tenses commingled. I was also not aware that he had a split personality, for he had several reputations to protect.

So I answered him: “Dear Councilor ________, Please go ahead and file a libel suit against me. But just make sure that you have the best lawyer, because I am going to square your lawyer off against my brilliant lawyer from the Ateneo Human Rights Center.” What followed was the silence of the lambs.

We won the administrative case, with the councilor suspended for three months without pay, which was the maximum penalty. But we lost the criminal case, for the judge, following existing jurisprudence, ruled that no man can file a sexual assault case against another man, even if Ruvic is already a transgender woman. Case closed. That is why we need an Anti-Discrimination Law to protect lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender, and queer Filipinos from maniacs like the aforementioned councilor.

My last libel case involved a magazine I used to edit. An acquaintance went to the department of English at Ateneo where I taught and pleaded with me to edit their new gay magazine. They have a room full of photos of half-naked men, but he said they needed me to make the magazine “professional.” I said “Yes,” but only if they would give me complete editorial independence. They agreed, so the first issue had essays on LGBTQ issues, as well as feature articles, short stories, and poems, aside from sexy photos.

Everything began to unravel in the second issue, when the publisher and my acquaintance wanted to feature more daring photos. They asked the male models to show more skin and hair (down there), to which I objected. I told them that we might be violating the Anti-Obscenity Law under Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code. These are listed as offenses against decency and good customs.

One of my lawyer-friends advised me that showing the pubic hair already constitutes a violation, since the pubic hair is part of the genitalia! So our shrewd publisher ordered the layout artist to photoshop the pubic hair. We were then threatened with a libel suit by a a Catholic women’s group, but the publisher wined and dined and apologized to them, and the case was dropped.

In the meantime, I had already resigned, because one of the male models called me up and said that I was the only one who treated them with respect. He said, “You are the only executive who did not touch us during the photo sessions.” I had to remind him I rarely attended those photo shoots, such as they were.

Lessons learned from the three possible libel cases: publish their side (even if ungrammatical) and never touch models who wear nothing else but Band-Aid on their foreheads.

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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