CEBU

Seares: Mejorada jail term for libel instructs on what to shun in smearing public officials

Medias Public

GENERALLY courts take the side of the press in its right to report and comment on the news about public officials on matters of public interest. Courts give wide latitude for mistakes of the reporter or opinion maker, ascribing lapses to the heat of deadline and placing high premium on the need for the people to know how public money is spent.

When courts finally decide to punish a journalist for libel, a jail sentence is generally avoided, with judges encouraged (under SC Circular 08-08), to impose a fine instead of a prison term.

Courts do not rule that a reporter or commentator is guilty of libel unless they find malice or, its equivalent, knowledge of the falsehood or “reckless disregard for the truth.”

A different libel case

Last August, the Supreme Court (SC) upheld the decision of the Court of Appeals that affirmed the ruling of the Regional Trial Court sentencing Manuel Mejorada to two to four years behind bars. Mejorada, whom news reports described as a journalist and former Iloilo provincial administrator, was convicted of libel for accusing in news media Sen. Franklin Drilon of “overpricing and other irregularities” in Iloilo, his hometown.

Mejorada’s case is different from most other libel cases because, unlike other journalists sued, he had appeared before a Senate committee hearing and there disclosed his errors that indicated either ill-will or what the courts call “reckless disregard for the truth.”

Tutorial on basics

He showed, probably without meaning to, what reporters and opinion writers must avoid in order not to commit libel and be punished for it:

[1] BASING HIS REPORT ON SUSPICION AND UNRELIABLE SOURCES. He admitted that he concluded there was overpricing by the reported rising cost of the building, from the initial P45 million, then to P70 million and finally about P1 billion. Where he learned them: from Drilon himself, but with incomplete information since Mejorada didn’t know and didn’t seek official explanation for the cost changes. A DPWH official whom Mejorada also sued before the ombudsman wondered why he didn’t get documents from the department. Mejorada’s other source: Wikipedia, which some senators and his colleagues must find odd for a veteran journalist to rely on.

[2] MIXING NEWS AND OPINION AND CONDEMNING WITH NO EVIDENCE YET. He considered himself as an investigative reporter. In reporting on Drilon’s alleged overpricing after looking into it for six months and a half, he must have mixed his news with opinion, the news of his initial finding along with his accusation of corruption.

Presumption lost

Mixing opinion and news was risky enough, a practice that editors usually ban, but making the condemnation of corruption with no evidence was playing with fire. His admission in an official and public setting, the Senate hearing, was a rope that Drilon later used in court.

Aside from the explicit confession of possessing no evidence, Mejorada’s request for the ombudsman to find the goods against Drilon boosts the prosecution’s theory that he knew the accusation against the senator was baseless or he didn’t have much regard for the truth.

Once it was taken out of the realm of privileged communication, Mejorada lost what a journalist values most among his defenses: absence of malice. Instead of being presumed to be in good faith, he was presumed to have borne ill-will. And obviously he was not able to overcome the presumption and was found guilty by three courts.


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