WHAT stood out in the local propaganda war that came with the just concluded 2019 midterm elections was a jingle that a block-time radio broadcaster aired against Rep. Jonas Cortes. Cortes challenged incumbent Mandaue City Mayor Luigi Quisumbing and won.
The radio ad used part of the final overture to the 1829 opera “William Tell” by Gioachino Rossini, which was popularized in the movie “The Lone Ranger” and animated cartoons. Many people who hear even snatches of the tune will immediately recognize it; that’s how familiar it is.
The two-to-three-minute tune evokes the image of “galloping horses, a race or a hero riding to the rescue.” But in that negative ad hurled at the Cortes campaign, what stunned, then fascinated us, was that Jonas’ name was mentioned along with a stream of two “per se” defamatory words, “kawatan” (thief) and “kurap” (corrupt), set to music and repeated so many times that one inevitably loses count.
The jingle must have been revolting to Jonas, his family, friends and supporters. But to other people who were just kibitzers to the heated political fight in Mandaue, the shock from the vulgar assault on a candidate’s reputation was also riveting, as the tune and its pace would perk most everyone’s interest.
Questions asked by students of libel law ranged from the incredulous (“Can they do that, is libel law suspended during elections?”) to the plain curious (“How many counts of libel can there be every time the jingle is played?”).
Elections don’t suspend libel laws: the Revised Penal Code, with the special laws that amended it, and the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 don’t go on holiday.
The heat of the campaign may mitigate the offense if the judge allows it under “passion and obfuscation.” But then in the anti-Jonas jingle, the repeated playing may tend to show ill-will and a pretty mean streak.
Elements of libel fit in
The elements of libel snugly fit into the playing of the “Kawatan” jingle.
Publication is assumed as it was broadcast on at least one radio station. It was not known if it was also live-streamed. If it was, it could qualify too as cyber libel. Republic Act 10175 (Section 4) says the crime is committed “through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.” Or what the same law refers to as “the use of information and communication technology,” which raises the penalty by one degree higher than that provided by the Revised Penal Code.
Identification? While only the name “Jonas” was mentioned in the ad, the comment, before or after the jingle was played, categorically referred to Congressman Jonas. As to the “offending” radio man, he didn’t conceal his identity but a disclaimer in the radio program’s “intro” oddly said Capitol and Mandaue City officials had nothing to do with it.
Defamation? The words “kawatan” and “kurap” are by themselves defamatory. And their repetition in the two-to-three-minute span of the jingle lends more force to the slander.
Malice is easier to prove during election time. Ill will --the intent to destroy the reputation of the rival politician–is openly laid out in the commentary, reinforced by repetition, raised voice and satire.
Reasons for not suing
The aggrieved politician will have the law on his side. Yet no charge may reach the court. Here’s why:
n Focused on winning the election, the public official probably did not bother to have the broadcasts recorded, even in the easy and simple method laid down by the Supreme Court in Boy Guingguing vs. Court of Appeals and People of the Philippines (GR #128959. Sept. 30, 2005), a case involving Cebu-based broadcaster Choy Torralba.
n The offended elected official may opt to “forgive and forget” since he won the election anyway.
n The libel trial may reopen issues and incidents that can lead to further embarrassment of the libel victim.
n His own campaign, with its own set of propagandist-broadcasters, might have also committed libel against his rival, in Jonas’ case, Mayor Luigi Quisumbing.
But the wounded politician may decide that the radio commentator had crossed the threshold. Words “kawatan,” “corrupt,” “butakal” and the like were easily thrown at specific candidates, with no evidence of wrongdoing, just accusations.
What would happen if they’d get away with all that mangling of reputation, with no accountability for libel, to their audience and their station managers? Future campaigns would even be more licentious and dirty.
Commentators in mainstream media were sued for much less: Broadcaster-columnist Bobby Nalzaro was charged with libel for writing that Tomas Osmeña “fabricated” some of the multiple complaints the mayor filed against a city official (DOJ and the court threw it out).
But if stringing together the words “thief” and “corrupt,” set into opera music, can go un-sanctioned by lawsuit or management review, we must wonder how far the mudslinging could go next time.