Seares: Trillanes may suffer same ordeal journalists suffer from libel venue

A COMPLAINT for libel filed in Davao City against Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV by President Duterte’s son and son-in-law has a Cebu element:

• The alleged defamatory remarks were made by Trillanes in an interview conducted on Sept. 8, 2017 by Leo Lastimosa, manager of ABS-CBN’s radio station in Cebu and host of its talk show “Arangkada”;

• Trillanes questions the jurisdiction of the Davao prosecutor’s office to investigate the complaint. “The interview was conducted in Cebu, aired in Cebu, and the witness is in Cebu,” Ray Robles, Trillanes’s lawyer, said.

The two brothers-in-law alleged that Trillanes said in the interview they “were asking money from Uber and other companies regulated by LTFRB, the Road Board and DPWH.”

Issues raised

Two issues interesting to journalists in Cebu, Davao elsewhere in the country:

[a] Can Lastimosa, or any other journalist similarly situated, be compelled to testify? He can be subpoenaed to the court hearing should the prosecutor decide there’s a probable cause of libel. He was already subpoenaed by CIDG in its inquiry into Trillanes’s case.

[b] What’s the jurisdiction on criminal libel? Primarily, it’s where the alleged defamation was first printed or published. Applying that to broadcast, guided by the intent of the law, venue shall be in Cebu City where it was first circulated or published.

But oops, in case of a private complainant, it shall be in the province or city where he actually resided. That will be Davao City. If the brothers-in-law are public officers, as Trillanes’s lawyer contends, it shall be in Manila or in the province or city where they hold office, meaning, Davao.

Venue can hurt

As Trillanes’s lawyer should’ve seen, complainants have the edge on venue, be they private individuals (actual residence) or public officers (place of office).

It’s an advantage often used by complainants against journalists who have to travel to the province or city where the complainant resides or holds office. A Freeman reporter was made to fly to Laoag to answer a libel complaint filed by a resident in that city. A reporter and an editor of SunStar had to travel to Quezon City and face charges of libel filed by a congressman who held office at the Batasan.

Trillanes may now suffer the same ordeal that journalists undergo when they’re sued for libel. The senator’s rivals will enjoy the “home court” edge. But unlike community reporters and editors, Trillanes may only be bothered by the hassle of travel but not the expenses.

As witness

Lastimosa most probably will be called as witness to the Trillanes interview. The brothers-in-law Duterte and Carpio supposedly have a tape of the interview but Leo had already refused twice to authenticate it: he wasn’t sure if it was not tampered with and he could no longer remember what the senator and he talked about more than a year ago.

Leo could be a witness unwilling or unable to support the tape that the complainants have. Still he could be subpoenaed even if he’d be hostile.

PNP, CIDG power

What journalists haven’t fully assessed yet is the impact of the power of the PNP chief and CIDG director to summon witnesses and require the production of documents under a new law (Republic Act 10973) signed by President Duterte last March 1.

Lastimosa could be among the first persons who were summoned under the said law. It was the CIDG chief in Manila who ordered its local unit to subpoena Leo to attest that the brothers-in-law’s tape was accurate. He refused. Would the forces of CIDG be unleashed on him and his radio station? No one could be sure. But watch out for this power of courts and committees in Congress that is now being shared by the police and CIDG.


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