Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Seares: Is Miguel Osmeña, the mayor’s son who sues Nalzaro, a private person?

“...It is really unfair for a private citizen like me to be maligned with no basis whatsoever by a media personality like Nalzaro.” -- Miguel Osmeña

CEBU City Mayor ‘Tomas Osmeña used the same tack in a libel complaint against broadcaster-newspaper columnist Bobby Nalzaro. Regional Trial Court Judge Gilbert P. Moises , in a decision released Aug. 26, rejected it and, for that and other reasons, threw out the complaint.

Tomas alleged in his complaint he was a private citizen when Nalzaro “defamed” him since the mayor was then out of public office, after his defeat to Mike Rama in 2013.

Now, the mayor’s son claims the same status – he, Miguel, is a private person -- in filing with the Cebu City prosecutors the other week two complaints for cyber libel against Nalzaro.

The difference

Why is that important for Miguel’s offense and Bobby’s defense? If Miguel is deemed a private person, he enjoys more protection from the law. He enjoys the legal presumption that the remarks of Nalzaro in two separate columns in SunStar were malicious, with Bobby carrying the burden of proving absence of malice.

In contrast, if Tomas’s son is considered a public figure, Nalzaro’s comment assumes the nature of a “privileged communication,” which removes presumed malice and shifts the task of proving malice to complainant Miguel. Plainly, Bobby’s right to free speech and free press is given more room and rein than Miguel’s right to privacy and honor.

Public person/public figure

Miguel, not holding any position in government, is not a “public person.” But he can be “a public figure.” And both are on the same level in libel legal terrain.

The Supreme Court, in Ayers Production vs. Capulong, said that a private person becomes a public figure when his “accomplishments, mode of living or by adopting a profession or calling” give the public a “legitimate interest in his doings, his affairs and his character.” In short, the SC said, “anyone who has arrived at a position where public attention is focused on him as a person.”

More like Luli

Would Miguel qualify that? In a way, he does. Being the mayor’s only son who is widely known to administer Tomas’s Facebook account, the young Osmeña gets attention. If he is involved, say, in a public brawl, he gets in the news. Miguel is newsworthy although not under day-to-day scrutiny to which his dad is exposed.

Miguel in a way is also a public figure, though in a lesser scale than Baste Duterte, the president’s son, who was a public figure even before he decided to run for Davao City vice mayor. Miguel is more like Luli Arroyo-Bernas, when her mom GMA was president. Though less exposed than Luli, Miguel has the capacity to stir media waters each time he throws a pebble or wades in.

Public issue

But that might not matter anymore since Nalzaro can prove that what he commented on was a public issue.

He alleges that the mayor “intervened in the arrest of three butane-canister-refilling workers because they were employees of his businessman ally, who also happens to be his son’s business partner.” An allegation supported by the charges of grave misconduct, abuse of authority and obstruction of justice that the police filed against the mayor.

Even if Miguel is a private person and does not qualify as a public figure, the SC ruled, in Art Borjal and Max Soliven vs. Court of Appeals and Wenceslao (GR#126466, 1999), that it “does not necessarily mean he could not be the subject of a public comment.”

‘Primary interest’

Taking the line of argument in the Borjal case, since the mayor’s alleged meddling was “a subject of public or general interest, it cannot suddenly become less so” just because it also involved a private person.

“The public’s primary interest is in the event. The public’s focus is on the conduct of the participant.” Applied to Miguel’s complaint, the main thing, which was the subject of Nalzaro’s commentary, was his dad’s alleged intervention.

Private person Miguel may have been dragged to a public event and issue, which in effect caught him in its web. Let’s see how the prosecutors and the courts will see it though.


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