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A LAW EACH DAY (KEEPS TROUBLE AWAY) - Jose C. Sison (The Philippine Star) - May 29, 2020 - 12:00am

This case is about Article 142 of the Revised Penal Code which punishes any person who shall write, publish or circulate scurrilous libels against any duly constituted authorities of the government, or which tend to disturb or obstruct any lawful officer in executing the functions of his office, or which tend to stir up the people against the lawful authorities or to disturb the peace of the community, the safety and order of the government…In order to be liable for this crime, what must be proven beyond reasonable doubt? Does this article prohibit any citizen to criticize his government and government officials? These are the issues raised and answered in our case for today.

This is the case of Pablo Ramos (not his true name), married, with three children and residing at a small city down south. Pablo has no visible means of livelihood to support his family except buying and selling all sorts of goods including prohibited or dangerous drugs along the streets of their city where the Mayor is Karlos Bacarro, a young idealistic politician belonging to the middle class and former councilor of the town.

In carrying out the functions of his office, Karlos tried to implement several projects for the cleanliness, beautification and promotion of peace and order. Included in this program are clearing the streets of illegal vendors which are blocking them as well as prohibiting and arresting the sale and distribution of dangerous drugs. Obviously, one of the victims of Bacarro’s program is Pablo who was forced to stop his trade and to hide in order to avoid arrest.

As a result, Pablo was completely deprived of any means to feed and support his family whose members eventually got sick because of hunger. In such a dire situation, Pablo completely blamed and got so mad at City Mayor Karlos. So he thought of taking steps to oust him from office. Since he is so powerless and penniless, he thought of something that will stir his fellow citizens in ousting Mayor Karlos.

He had his picture taken, making it appear as if he were hanging lifeless at the end of a piece of rope suspended from the limb of a tree, when in truth and in fact he was only standing on a barrel. After securing copies of his photograph, Pablo sent them to several newspapers and weeklies of general circulation not only in his province but also throughout the Philippines, for their publication, with a suicide note wherein he made it appear that it was written by a fictitious person who committed suicide by the name of “Roberto Rivera” addressed to the latter’s supposed wife, as follows: 

“My dear wife: If someone asks you why I committed suicide, tell them I did it because I was not pleased with the administration of our Mayor Karlos Bacarro. Tell the whole country about this.

And if they ask why I did not like his administration, point out to them the many anomalies, graft and corruption which he himself commits, and even banditries happening which he allows or tolerates.

Dear Wife: Write our President and tell him that here in our city, the government is infested with so many abusive, corrupt and incompetent officials specifically Mayor Karlos. Tell our children to burn his picture if they come across one.

I committed suicide because I have no power to remove him from office and so that those in power can remove him from office. So I sacrificed myself in order that he will be dismissed as Mayor and punished accordingly.”

Eventually, Pablo admitted the fact that he wrote the above suicide note and caused its publication in several newspapers of general circulation both local and national. He said that he impersonated one “Roberto Rivera” in a picture taken wherein he was shown hanging by the end of a rope tied to a tree. So he was charged with scurrilous libel pursuant to Article 42 of the Revised Penal Code.

After trial on the merits, Pablo was convicted by the Court of First Instance (CFI, now Regional Trial Court, RTC), of violation of said article. The conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. Were the courts correct?

Yes. The suicide note is a scurrilous libel against the duly constituted authority of the city government. It calls the City Mayor one of the crooks and dishonest persons in said government, and reveals a tendency to produce dissatisfaction or a feeling incompatible with remaining loyal to the duly constituted authority of the city.

Writings which tend to overthrow or undermine the security of a duly constituted authority or to weaken confidence of the people in the government are against the public peace and are criminal not only because they tend to incite breach of the peace but also because they are conducive to the destruction of the very government of the city itself. All sections or institutions of the government whether national or local must be recognized as holding functions founded on sound principles and to be defended and treated with an established and well-nigh unalterable respect. Each of these institutions has peculiar virtues and peculiar weaknesses, but whether at any one time the virtue or weakness predominates there must be certain standard of decorum reserved for all. Each guarded remonstrance, each fiery invective, each burst of indignation must rest on some basis of respect and deference toward the depository, for the time being, of every great constitutional function.

Freedom of speech secured by the Constitution does not confer an absolute right to speak or publish without responsibility whatever one may choose. It is not an unbridled license that gives immunity for every possible use of language and prevents the punishment of those who abuse this freedom.

Article 142 punishes not only all libels against the government but also libels against any of the duly constituted authorities thereof. This is the ruling in the case of Espuelas vs. People, G.R. L-2990, December 17, 1951)

(Erratum: In last week’s column, petition for habeas corpus was stated as one of the pending cases against ABS-CBN. It should have been quo warranto.)

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