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Friday, September 20, 2019
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Seares: Inquirer.net apologizes; Rappler doesn’t: Where they must differ

THE President’s spokesman and chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, said he planned to sue the digital news media sites Inquirer.net and Rappler for “libeling” him about the letter of Antonio Sanchez’s family, requesting for executive clemency for the former Calauan, Laguna mayor who was serving multiple life sentences for rape and murder.

Panelo said Rappler and Inquirer.net committed libel by imputing an act “to discredit” him in public and “tarnish” his honor. The next day, Wednesday, Panelo modified the threat, demanding that the two news organizations apologize or face a complaint for libel.

As of Friday, Sept. 6, only Inquirer.net apologized, saying it erred in saying that Panelo “recommended” pardon for Sanchez. Rappler said it wouldn’t apologize for a story that was neither libelous nor defamatory.

A tweet and a story

What exactly did Inquirer and Rappler report?

n Inquirer.net tweeted that Panelo wrote a letter “recommending” to the Board of Pardons & Parole (BPP) executive clemency for Sanchez who was slapped with multiple reclusion perpetuas (life sentences) for the 1993 rape-murder of UP student Mary Eileen Sarmenta and her friend Allan Gomez and the killing of a political rival’s henchman.

n Rappler, in a news story, reported that Panelo “endorsed” the request of the Sanchez family to the BPP.

Panelo alleged that the tweet and the news story were “reeking with irresponsibility and malice.”

His basis apparently is what he sees as wrong use of words. Panelo said he didn’t “endorse” or “recommend”; he merely “referred” the Sanchez family’s request. He cited the Collins Dictionary definition of the words: “to recommend” is “to suggest or advise on what is the best thing to do” and to “endorse” is “to state or act which shows you support or approve of someone or something.”

‘Recommend, endorse’

Did Panelo’s letter of Feb. 26, 2019 “recommend” or “endorse”? Based on the dictionary meaning, Panelo was right, it did not. That must be the major reason Inquirer.net decided to apologize.

Panelo asked BPP (a) to evaluate and take “appropriate action” and (b) to update his office on “whatever action” it may take, “consistent with law” and the President’s “policy of good governance.” Clinically antiseptic, the letter sounded and looked like a routine “referral.”

But were the tweet and news story defamatory and libelous?

The words “recommend” and “endorse” are not defamatory per se. Imprecise language offends grammar and good writing but not the Revised Penal Code or the Cyber-libel Law. Without defamation or malice, prosecution for libel fails.

Rule out libel

Here’s why the Inquirer tweet and the Rappler story didn’t “reek” of malice and irresponsibility as Panelo alleged:

[1] They were based on the testimony of BBP Chief Reynaldo Bayang before the Senate on the same day, Sept. 3, who said he received Panelo’s Feb. 26 letter, which BPP rejected on March 19. Bayang used the word “endorse” in describing the letter. The hearing was official and public.

[2] Rappler’s story quoted Panelo’s letter in full. If it erred in using the word “endorse,” the quote from the letter corrected the wrong use and explained the nature of the letter. The same Rappler story included Panelo’s explanation, which negates malice or irresponsibility.

While Inquirer.net wasn’t precise in initially using the word “recommend,” the prompt correction changed it to a “referral.”

[3] Both Inquirer and Rappler ran follow-up stories that explained Panelo’s position, including his threat to sue and all. In this age of round-the-clock news cycle, correction is immediate, the message repetitive. Panelo as the President’s surrogate commands media attention, with the capability to rectify any error and even strike back at an “offending” journalist or news outlet without litigating.

[4] Raising possible conflict of interest in the story was unavoidable. Panelo had served as Sanchez’s lawyer in the rape-murder case. He could’ve recused himself by not acting on the Sanchez family’s request and he would’ve dodged the storm over the GCTA law.

Sidelining core of dispute

The ball thrown at the two news media outlets was the demand for apology. Inquirer.net apologized but Rappler stood its ground.

Standard newsroom procedure is for senior editors and its public editor or ombudsman to review the story and every stage of its handling: to see where the reporter or editor may have erred. And it’s not just the journalists who decide. The owners and their lawyers weigh in as well.

The reason is that a lawsuit involves use and possible loss of resources: the litigation--with lawyers, bail and court fees--cost money. Then there’s the still-invisible cost: possible damage on business inflicted by retaliation from the person suing and the authority and power he wields. Consider too the other business interests where the owners may be vulnerable to government action.

What happens is that often, the supposed core of the dispute–the alleged offensive article--takes the sideline in the decision of a media company to hold the line or yield.


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