Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Seares: Journalists can’t be sued just anywhere the article is accessed

THE Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act #10175) has worsened the lot of journalists or anyone else whose published material is made the basis of a complaint for libel.

To those working in the news media, that means most of them. Complainants would prefer to sue under the anti-cyber crime law because the penalty is one degree higher than that provided in the Civil Code for libel.

Why sue under the ancient penal code when under R.A. #10175, the penalty is increased to a minimum of four years and one day to a maximum of eight years?

Almost all news and opinion material printed or broadcast are also published online. Supreme Court Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio noted in an oral argument on the law in January 2013 that “there’s no more ordinary libel” as everybody uses the new technology, the computer, not the typewriter.

Not just anywhere

Journalists since 2012 have risked getting a longer jail term if convicted of libel. One good thing brought by the new law, through an interpretation of the Supreme Court, is that no one can be sued for cyber libel just anywhere.

Not the Regional Trial Court of any province, city or town where the complainant accesses the alleged libelous content. Access by internet can be anywhere but a lawsuit based on material from the internet must be filed in the venue provided by law.

Where to file

R.A. #10175 itself doesn’t provide for the venue but the Revised Penal Code does. The penal code, as revised by R.A. #4363 of 1965, specifies the place of the Regional Trial Court where the complaint must be filed:

* If complainant is a private individual -- (a) where the complainant resides at the time of the alleged crime was committed; or (b) where the “defamation” was printed and first published.

* If complainant is a public official -- (a) where the complainant holds office (in Manila or outside Manila) at the time the alleged crime was committed; or (b) where the “defamation” was first printed and published.

‘Floodgates’ to lawsuits

The place of access venue was rejected by the SC. In the case of Bonifacio et al vs. Regional Trial Court of Makati, the high court upheld the view of members of a group who were victimized by a pre-need-plan company that the venue was wrong. Bonifacio and others who ran a website that castigated the company and the family that owns it should’ve been sued either at the place of residence of the complainant or the place where the material was published.

Where is the place of publication? The penal code doesn’t specify but it is assumed to be where the website or online edition originates, usually the place of news operations and business of the news organization.

The SC in the Bonifacio case feared that a different rule “would open floodgates” to libel suits from any and all places. Anyone anywhere can access, using any of the various devices, a digitally published material. “Indiscriminate” and “arbitrary” laying of venue would only intimidate and oppress, the SC ruled, with journalists dragged to “far-flung” areas to answer lawsuits.

May still be harassed

The lot of journalists could have been worse had the SC ruled otherwise in the Bonifacio case on the venue of cyber libel.

But even under the present rule on venue, media workers and all others who publish an “offensive” article and sued, may still be harassed.

The aggrieved private individual who does business in Cebu but resides elsewhere (say, in Quezon City or Laoag City) may sue a Cebu journalist and publication there and not in Cebu. A congressman who holds office in Manila and Zamboanga is not bound to sue in Cebu where the “defamatory” material originated; he may drag the respondent to Manila or Zamboanga.

Neglected proposal

Community journalists prefer to be held accountable for their published materials right in their office of work and business. For the obvious reason that the expense of litigation could bankrupt them and their news outlet. Congress has sat for years on the proposal to correct the injustice from the venue on libel

* * *

How the lawsuit can harass by venue

If the complainant private individual sues at his place of residence or, if he's a public official, at his office. And the residence or office is far-flung, far away from the journalist's place or work or his news outlet's place of business.


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