Seares: Gwen’s libel case vs. MT ‘kores’: Not for news story but Facebook comment

Medias Public

CEBU Gov. Gwen Garcia’s gripe against Rhea Ruth Rosell, a Cebu-based news correspondent of the “Manila Times,” is not about news stories the reporter filed with the website but for her comments on Facebook, which were not about the governor’s policies and actions but about her alleged personal traits.

Screen-shots of the posts “kores” Rhea Ruth Rosell allegedly made on her Facebook account included one that in effect called the governor senile. A CDN Digital news report quoted the “offensive” remark thus: “Sometimes I would ask. ‘Sa sige niya (og) yawyaw ba during the press conferences, wala pa na siya gi-(ango-ango.)” Another Rosell post referred to Guv Gwen as “a witch.”

Whether calling a public official names is defamatory and libelous will be the core of the legal battle if the governor makes good her threat to sue RRR. Liability is for the prosecutor and the court to decide.

For now, our immediate interest is on allocation of responsibility: Between a journalist who writes personal comments in social media and the editor/owner of the news media outlet for which the reporter writes news stories.

Not news, not for Times

First, what Rosell wrote that got Guv Gwen’s ire is not a news story. Second, it was not run under the Manila Times FB account or in its website.

A number of journalists (a) work directly for a news website, as Rosell does, or (b) have their work in the print edition also published in the digital edition, as many SunStar columnists do, or (c) do both. And most have their individual social media accounts, where they post bulletins of breaking stories or republish their work for the media outlet.

In this case, Rosell posted on her personal FB wall comments about Governor Garcia, the source of many of her stories, who with other LGU chiefs dominate the news cycle these days. The remarks, based on the screen-grabs presented by Guv Gwen, have nothing to do with policies or decisions in the campaign against coronavirus and would have no place in a news story.

Questionable wisdom

Rosell’s editor will probably question the wisdom of a reporter unnecessarily antagonizing the news source by calling the public official names on FB or Twitter. Maybe, the reporter will explain that the social media account is her own domain and for her personal use. To which, the editor may say, “But here you’re hurting your reportorial work, you can write what you want but you cannot call a public official senile or witch, unless you cite specific acts that prove he is one and they are hurting his work in the government.”

Apparently, there are no rules yet set by editors for journalists’ behavior in Facebook or Twitter. What is known is that they are being encouraged to promote themselves and their work as part of the news media’s marketing in the digital realm. Yet most newsrooms have a standing rule against misconduct in their personal space that will reflect badly on their news organization.

What if the journalist gets into legal or other trouble because of his exposure in social media? In this case, would Manila Times answer for Rosell’s liability, if any, if the governor would go to court? Would it provide the reporter legal and financial aid to defend the lawsuit?

Journos know better

This is still a murky area, particularly for correspondents and stringers of Manila-based newspapers or websites, which may just pick stories off the internet should they not have writers of their own at the story’s place of origin.

Journalists, most of whom have had schooling and practice in journalism, are expected to know better the peril of navigating the waters of social media.

They know, for one, that penalty for cyber libel is higher than libel in print or broadcast. For another, they know that a journalist does not risk dire consequences of libel just to give vent to one’s dislike of a government official. There must be some noble purpose a journalist can chase.

Maybe broadcaster-opinion columnist Bobby Nalzaro, flogged with multiple libel lawsuits, can teach a thing or two about when to take the risk.


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