Decriminalizing Libel in the Philippines

There are a number of proposals in Congress to decriminalize libel. We’ve previously noted a similar bill in 2004. The explanation remains the same — the removal of imprisonment is more in keeping with the protection of the right of individuals to freedom of speech and expression.

None of these bills became law. It’s just like the divorce bill which gets resurrected and refiled but never passed, except I haven’t heard of any group that actively opposes the bills on libel.

Which side of the fence one stands may determine one’s view on libel. Journalists, bloggers even, those who are predisposed to freely speak their minds, those who find tsismis a passion, or those who have been sued, may say that libel should be decriminalized. Those who have been subject of unfair or untrue “reporting”, victims of character assassination, or erring officials who don’t want to be talked about, would probably say that the criminal nature of libel be maintained. Those who are in between, and that probably constitute a huge majority, most likely don’t care. And that is why this issue has not gained traction even in Congress.

As the law now stands, libel carries both civil and criminal liabilities. The civil liability is the payment of damages. The criminal liability is imprisonment, fine or both. The existing bills in Congress, as well as the similar bills that were previously filed, seek to remove the criminal liability (or limit it to fines, without imprisonment).

It’s a tough balancing act. We cannot make a single pronouncement — decriminalize libel — without distinctions, especially when jurisprudence makes distinctions. Even the set of guidelines issued by the Supreme Court makes room for the “peculiar circumstances of each case.”

Should we decriminalize libel? I realized this is probably not the best way to phrase the question.

The usual discussion is undertaken on a higher level, with concepts like free speech, free press, and chilling effect. The usual argument is that decriminalizing libel is consistent with, and strengthens, the Constitutional protection on free speech and free press.

At the other end of the spectrum is the right of privacy, the right to be left alone, to maintain and defend one’s honor and reputation. Libelous statements are characterized as “unprotected expression”. These libelous or scurrilous statements fall outside the protection of free speech and press freedom.

Freedom of speech, right to privacy, unprotected expression, and chilling effect. Big words. Important concepts, yes, but let’s take the issue to the street level.

People go to great lengths to protect their reputation. People kill to defend their honor. A popular means to vindicate one’s honor in the past is dueling, even if illegal. It is true that we should not be tied to the past, but we cannot say that the compulsion to defend one’s honor is lesser today or in the future. This is particularly true if we consider that technology makes it easier to commit libel on an unprecedented scale. Post a libelous matter on facebook and most probably your friends will get to know about it. Indeed, with social networks, the whole world can read about the libelous matter with a click of the mouse.

Protecting one’s honor and reputation is very important, so much so that civil liability is not enough. At least that’s how the law stands today. In the end, the question is personal: Would you be satisfied with a civil liability to vindicate your honor and reputation?

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