SC issues Guidelines for Imposition of Libel Penalties

The Supreme Court has just issued Administrative Circular No. 08-2008, providing for Guidelines in the Observance of a Rule of Preference in the Imposition of Penalties in Libel Cases. Trial courts may, in its discretion and based on the peculiar circumstances of each case, impose only a fine, instead of imprisonment.

In all probability, critics will again say this is judicial legislation, pretty much the same criticism raised against a similar circular on BP 22, as well as the issuance of the rules on the writ of amparo. Well, arguments are most welcome at the comments section below. In the meantime, here’s a basic discussion on the guidelines.

What is the imposable penalty for libel?

Libel, committed by means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means, is punishable with prision correccional in its minimum and medium periods or a fine ranging from 200 to 6,000 pesos, or both, in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party. (Art. 355, RPC)

What is the significance of Administrative Circular No. 08-2008 (full text), issued by the Supreme Court on 25 January 2008 (A.M. No. 08-1-17-SC)?

Administrative Circular No. 08-2008, providing for Guidelines in the Observance of a Rule of Preference in the Imposition of Penalties in Libel Cases, instructs all courts and judges to take note of certain preferences in imposing penalties for the crime of libel. “The Judges concerned may, in the exercise of sound discretion, and taking into consideration the peculiar circumstances of each case, determine whether the imposition of a fine alone would best serve the interests of justice or whether forbearing to impose imprisonment would depreciate the seriousness of the offense, work violence on the social order, or otherwise be contrary to the imperatives of justice.”

Is there any case or jurisprudence wherein only a fine was imposed?

Yes, there are a number of illustrations mentioned in the Circular. One of the cases cited is Fernando Sazon v. Court of Appeals and People of the Philippines, wherein the Supreme Court modified the penalty imposed upon petitioner, an officer of a homeowners’ association, for the crime of libel from imprisonment and fine in the amount of P200.00, to fine only of P3,000.00, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency, for the reason that he wrote the libelous article merely to defend his honor against the malicious messages that earlier circulated around the subdivision, which he thought was the handiwork of the private complainant. There are other illustrations stated in the Circular (full text here).

Does the Circular remove imprisonment as a penalty for libel?

No. The Circular explicitly states that it “does not remove imprisonment as an alternative penalty for the crime of libel under Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code.” In other words, the Circular does not “decriminalize” libel and the court could still impose imprisonment if called for by the circumstances. Also, even if only a fine is imposed but the accused fails or refuses to pay, the accused could be imprisoned, applying the Revised Penal Code provisions on subsidiary imprisonment.

When does the Circular take effect?

It takes effect upon its issuance, or on 25 January 2008.

Is this the first time that the Supreme Court issued a Circular of such nature?

No. Back in 2000 (Administrative Circular No. 12-2000, as clarified by Administrative Circular No. 13-2001), the Supreme Court provided for a similar rule of preference in the application of the penalties provided for in B.P. Blg. 22 (Bouncing Checks Law).

In issuing circulars of such nature, is the Supreme Court amending the law?

Some critics argue that the Supreme Court is, in effect, amending the law, referring to such act as “judicial legislation”. The Supreme Court, however, is merely interpreting the law. The law itself allows the judge to choose between the following penalties: (a) fine only; (b) imprisonment only; OR (c) both fine and imprisonment.

11 comments

  1. Even with the issuance of the rule on preference, I hope that judges will continue to impose imprisonment as a penalty in cases involving libelous acts committed by an employee against his supervisor or manager.

    It is a common occurence that employees band together to oust or cause the transfer of a manager they simply do not like. The reason is personal dislike. But they can write some complaint that gives it that tenor of being official, to the detriment of the victim.

    In the office where I work, the rank and file employees wrote a libelous letter to the legal department imputing various illegal acts committed by their manager.

    While the manager was not charged with an administrative case, the manager has been in floating status, practically doing nothing all day long, for the last 5 years or so. With encouragement from this writer, the manager filed a case against those employees for the crime of libel. Trial will resume this year.

    Filipinos are a talkative lot. They have no compunction of conscience in destroying the reputation of persons they do not personally like. They have a personal dislike for someone and there they go, talk and talk behind your back. If the employees involved will just get a fine, we will not teach people, particularly these employees, to respect others.

  2. Have you ever heard of something called the Right to Privacy in life, liberty or security?

    Does such a substantive sounding right exist in form and substance anywhere in the Constitution?

    If so where?

    I am concerned because it is precisely the Right that the so called Rule on the Writ of Habeas Data apparently seeks to protect from violation or threat.

    Both amparo and habeas data are Constitutional rights that exist in foreign Constitutions, but not ours.

    How did the supreme court manage to smuggle them in via mere rules of procedures.

    Have they not triply violated the prohibition on “decreasing, increasing or modifying substantive rights” if they managed to establish Constitutional rights recognized in Mexico but not here??

  3. Warrior,

    You have a point. Still, it’s a challenge that’s not impossible to achieve. Take for example BP 22, which was previously the subject of a circular containing similar “guidelines” on preference. The court could still impose imprisonment and we had ocassion to make sure that we show bad faith in prosecuting the case. Even before (and without) the guidelines, courts were imposing fine, without imprisonment. The guidelines did not change that.

    DJB,

    I have known you as an astute observer of the Constitution (and highly respect you for that), that I can’t help thinking this is a trick question. The rights to life, privacy and security are protected under the Constitution and Philippine laws. You could see these rights in Article III of the Constitution. In fact, the first case involving the national ID system (Ople vs. Torres) has a relevant discussion on this matter. I quote:

    In the 1968 case of Morfe v. Mutuc, we adopted the Griswold ruling that there is a constitutional right to privacy. xxx

    xxx The right to privacy as such is accorded recognition independently of its identification with liberty; in itself, it is fully deserving of constitutional protection. xxx

    Indeed, if we extend our judicial gaze we will find that the right of privacy is recognized and enshrined in several provisions of our Constitution. It is expressly recognized in Section 3(1) of the Bill of Rights:

    “Sec. 3. (1) The privacy of communication and correspondence shall be inviolable except upon lawful order of the court, or when public safety or order requires otherwise as prescribed by law.”

    Other facets of the right to privacy are protected in various provisions of the Bill of Rights, viz:

    “Sec. 1. No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.

    Sec. 2. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses he may produce, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.
    x x x.

    Sec. 6. The liberty of abode and of changing the same within the limits prescribed by law shall not be impaired except upon lawful order of the court. Neither shall the right to travel be impaired except in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health, as may be provided by law.
    x x x.

    Sec. 8. The right of the people, including those employed in the public and private sectors, to form unions, associations, or societies for purposes not contrary to law shall not be abridged.

    Sec. 17. No person shall be compelled to be a witness against himself.”

    Zones of privacy are likewise recognized and protected in our laws. The Civil Code provides that “[e]very person shall respect the dignity, personality, privacy and peace of mind of his neighbors and other persons” and punishes as actionable torts several acts by a person of meddling and prying into the privacy of another. It also holds a public officer or employee or any private individual liable for damages for any violation of the rights and liberties of another person, and recognizes the privacy of letters and other private communications. The Revised Penal Code makes a crime the violation of secrets by an officer, the revelation of trade and industrial secrets, and trespass to dwelling. Invasion of privacy is an offense in special laws like the Anti-Wiretapping Law, the Secrecy of Bank Deposit Act and the Intellectual Property Code. The Rules of Court on privileged communication likewise recognize the privacy of certain information.

    In other words, those rights are there in the Constitution. On the other hand, the Constitution itself (Art. VIII, Sec. 5[5]) expressly gives the Supreme Court the power and authority to promulgate rules for the protection and enforcement of constitutional rights.

  4. Fred,

    Thanks for the great riposte. Nice of you to drop by!

    It was not a trick question. How is it even possible to question the Constitutionality of the Rules of amparo and habeas data?

    Can one file a petition for certiorari? Who would the respondents be? Who the court that would decide such a case?

    Or must we simply accept the Rules of Court AS IF they really were just mere sets of new “procedures” and not the purported active solution to a vexing legal, moral and political conundrum in the extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances allegedly by the duly constituted authorities against leftist activists of the CPP NPA NDF and/or various NGOs.

    Amparo and habeas data have evidently been designed and deployed with a very ambitious and lofty goal: To solve the hundreds of extrajudicial killings, some 900 at last Karapatan count, as well as to protect present and future victims.

    I worry that mere Rules of Court are being touted as a magick solution to that vexing problem. These are highly complex cases as the fates of many persons involved in terrible crimes on both sides of the Law, are at stake.

    If any of their substantive rights have effectively been increased, decreased or modified in any way by amparo or habeas data, it would be a grave injustice.

    So the question of Constitutionality would seem to have substantive motivation in the gravity of the cases sought to be impacted by the new Rules.

    We must be more circumspect. While I agree all those rights you enumerated exist, does the formulation “right to privacy in life, liberty, or security” increase, decrease, or modify that same set of rights.

    I am just now plowing through each provision of the new Rule on HD.

    I don’t know, Fred, … but every single one of them smacks of some new entitlement, for indigents, Judges, and Courts; whilst individuals and institutions involved in data gathering, such as journalists and academicians and corporations and NGOs, and researchers of all kinds, could suffer unreasonable search and seizures in the guise of writ of habeas data orders.

    Oh, I think there is plenty of reason to question these new Rules and the manner of their adoption.

    I pose it to you again (no trick!):

    How can the Constitutionality and legality of the Rules of Amparo and habeas data be challenged?

  5. DJB,

    The pending petition filed by ABS-CBN is a great opportunity to resolve that issue. Perhaps the respondent could raise the issue that the rules are unconstltutional, although the SC would tackle the issue only when absolutely necessary. On the other hand, the first respondent in a writ of HD should raise the purported unconstitutionality of the rules.

  6. Fred,
    Have Rules of Court ever been questioned in that manner? Not only would it seem to be futile, but have Rules ever been so obviously substantive modification of rights, and not mere procedural changes?

  7. How can the Constitutionality and legality of the Rules of Amparo and habeas data be challenged?

    Dean, the Supreme Court is like an ugly woman. It has no APPEAL.

    Seriously, I have no problem seeing the Supreme Court taking away the legislative power of a rubber-stamp Congress.

  8. Is there a page where i can find the the Phil. Assoc, vs. Sec. of Education 97 Phil 806-1965? also this case, Tan vs. Macapagal (43 SCRA 677)..please help..

  9. I am asking some of your advice…in the situation of having libel case is the respondent have its right to file a case and do they have the right to name the price they want to pay from the person who had cause the damage of their reputation?

  10. Decriminalized libel is useful for this corrupt country of the Philippines. How can the Media practitioners have the courage to fight against misconduct, graft and corruption of public officials if they are vulnerable of harassment from the fangs of influential ranking officials of the government?

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