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Saturday, February 16, 2019
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Seares: When politicians sue one another for libel: journalists spared this time

PUBLIC officials and other politicians have wide access to the public through the media. They are public property and open to accusation or complaint, which they can answer readily and extensively. That’s particularly true during election season when issues against one another fly thick and fast.

Yet they sue. The reason is that a lawsuit is a weapon, which can be used for their own purpose. Most likely not to resolve an issue or clear the air: litigation can drag for ages, beyond the election period. Rather, to express outrage, serve a propaganda purpose, to harass the rival, or a mix of all.

Alcover, Trillanes

Two cases of libel that landed in media last week:

[1] Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña filed a complaint for libel against City Councilor Pastor Alcover Jr., member of the opposition Partido Barug, for allegedly putting words into his mouth through a Facebook post on the Ateneo de Manila student bullying incident;

[2] Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV pleaded not guilty to four libel cases filed against him by presidential son Paolo Duterte, who’s running for Davao City vice mayor, and the president’s son-in-law Manases Carpio, accusing them during a 2017 interview of extorting money from the ride-hailing company Uber.

Alcover must have said worse things about Tomas and yet the mayor picked an almost innocuous opinion, one among hundreds of views from the public, on the issue of the day at the time, a small boy bullying a co-student, bulkier and taller boy, in Manila.

The councilor posted the allegedly concocted quote on his Facebook wall. No journalist, newspaper or broadcast station was involved. Tomas couldn’t sue a SunStar or a Nalzaro, it was just Alcover, over an issue totally unrelated to the concerns of the city.

Lastimosa excluded

Paolo and Manases, identified to the most visible political family in the country, did not include in their complaint dyAB’s Leo Lastimosa, who did the radio interview with Trillanes in Cebu City.

Is this a new thing, sparing the media that reported or transmitted the statements that led to the libel suit? Maybe, the complainants just happened not to dislike the journalist or news outfit concerned. But the right to drag media into politicians’ legal battle is still there.

Faraway venue

So is the right of a complainant public official to pick a faraway venue. Trillanes lives and works in Manila and yet has to fly to Davao, along with his entourage of bodyguards and staff, to answer the libel complaint.

When a Cebu journalist is sued by, say, a congressman with office in Quezon City and residence in Zamboanga, he has to bear the expense and distress of facing the charge in either place, not in Cebu City, where the newspaper or broadcast station is located.

Public officials like Trillanes can afford the expense of travel--and getting a lawyer, which also costs more because of the distance. The complainant enjoys the advantage of home court and the pleasure of watching the distress of the persons he sues.

Disadvantage

Until the law is changed, it is often a lopsided battle for the journalist sued by a public official. Public officials don’t realize the extent of the disadvantage until they themselves are charged with libel by rival politicians.

That must have sunk into Trillanes and other public officials who sympathize with his plight of being hounded with lawsuits.


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