Seares: SC policy on libel hasn’t removed jail term, isn’t limited to journalists

medias public

Libel still has to be decriminalized but 11 years ago, the Supreme Court (SC) took one step towards it. The high tribunal did not change the law; only Congress and the President can do that. It merely set what it called a “rule of preference” for judges in imposing penalty for criminal libel.

Administrative Circular #08-2008, approved en banc, was issued by the SC on Jan. 25, 2008, more than 11 years ago, when Justice Reynato S. Puno who signed it was chief justice.

Questions on circular

Still in many media forums, questions are unfailingly asked, such as (a) Did it take out from the law the penalty of imprisonment? (b) How much discretion does the judge have in imposing a jail sentence? And (c) If the convicted person cannot pay the fine, will he serve time in prison? (a. no, b. a lot, c. yes)

Added to those questions, because of cyber libel being also penalized by Anti-Cybercrime Law (Republic Act 10175), is this:

Is the admin-circular limited to journalists or those only working with news media and does it also apply to those who report or comment in blogs and social-media sites?

Application of the circular concerns more people now because of the huge number of internet users who communicate publicly. With no editor reviewing what they write and the speed the stuff is transmitted, chances of defaming others are higher.

No distinction

As libel under the Revised Penal Code does not distinguish offenders—be he a reporter or editor working in a newspaper or broadcast station, or a blogger or Facebook or Twitter user commenting about his lunch and his corrupt mayor—the SC admin-circular also does not distinguish whether the offender benefited by the order is a journalist or not.

The SC would have opened itself to criticism of discriminating against non-journalists. The Revised Penal Code and the cyber libel law don’t single out news media workers.

Reason for being

The concern though about the admin-circular’s application persists: Is it only for journalists? The reason for the worry goes back to the order’s reason for being.

When CJ Puno was criticized that he was trying to “court” media when the SC issued the order, he explained on Jan. 30, 2008 that the National Press Club (NPC) requested it. Had the NPC not sent him a letter, he wouldn’t have issued it, he said. Good for the press at the time: it asks the SC something, and the SC grants it.

How it helps

Has the admin-circular helped? No data are available on the number of people jailed or only fined for criminal libel. One cannot be sure how many judges followed the intent of the SC in its 2008 order.

Still, it must have helped, especially to journalists who have been clamoring that libel be decriminalized or, in the case of the plea of the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC), that the penalty of imprisonment be removed. The threat of imprisonment is worse than the threat of a fine, although an excessive fine may also amount to oppression.

‘Sound discretion’

That, along with the decision to jail or not to jail, is left to the judge. The Puno circular calls for the judge’s “exercise of sound discretion,” considering “the peculiar circumstances” of each case, whether jailing the accused or just imposing a fine will “serve the interest of justice.”

The circular in effect discourages the judge from sending the accused, journalist or not, to prison but doesn’t take away his right to slap him with a fine instead.

About the fine, subsidiary imprisonment will apply if the convicted libeler cannot pay. Not much argument for those seeking total decriminalization of libel because fat damages can be granted still to the victim in civil libel.

‘Burst of light’

On Feb. 6, 2008, former U. P. law dean Raul Pangalangan called the Puno circular “a welcome burst of light in the dark hour when the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has declared an open war against media.”

However, he said, he would have “much preferred” that Congress, the law-making arm, carry out the reform on the “antiquated” libel laws. Instead of the court, which could be accused of legislating, instead of just interpreting the law. The justice secretary at the time, Raul Gonzalez, suggested that Puno be impeached. It would’ve failed, because as one can see, “it amply leaves the weighing of penalties to the trial judge.”

Again, the circular applies to everyone haled to court for libel, journalist or not. And repeating Pangalangan, Congress can do better.


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