[RELATED ARTICLES: Media's Public in SunStar, June 20, 17, 16, 15.]
THE Manila Regional Trial Court imposed in its June 15 decision, which found Rappler executive editor and CEO Maria Ressa and researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. guilty of libel, the penalty of six months and one day to six years and damages of P400,000 each.
It could have shunned imprisonment, if it wanted to, and slapped only fine on the two journalists of the news website that published a news story linking businessman Wilfredo King to alleged drug trade, human trafficking and murder.
'Rule of preference'
The Supreme Court calls it a "rule of preference" in the imposition of penalties for libel. It is contained in Administrative Circular #08-2008, approved by the high court en banc on January 22, 2008 and signed by then chief justice Reynato S. Puno.
Raul P. Pangalangan, then law dean of the University of the Philippines, on February 6, 2008 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." Instead of sending journalists to jail, courts may decide to impose only a fine, with subsidiary imprisonment in case of failure to pay.
Fine, not a jail term
To the cry for decriminalization of libel, the option given to judges was at least a window opened.
The common complaint of journalists then was that libel was being used by vengeful politicians to hit back at media, using litigation to harass those whose coverage or commentary of the news is not flattering or is even offensive.
Instead of the legislature easing the law on libel, it is the judiciary providing some relief in the imposition of penalty for it. Judges handling libel cases are given the discretion to slap a fine and not a jail term.
Not just for journalists
The relief is available not just to journalists but anyone sued for libel, including internet users who, heady with their new-found freedom and ease to publish, at times carelessly smear other people's reputation.
The 2008 SC admin-circular lists cases of libel where the court opted to fine and not to jail the offender: an officer of a homeowner's association, a government employee, a local politician, and a mayor. Puno disclosed in 2008 that the National Press Club had requested him to adopt the rule. Interestingly, the admin-circular the SC finally issued didn't mention a single case of libel against a journalist.
Jail term not removed
But here's the thing: The SC admin-circular does not remove the jail term: "This ... does not remove imprisonment as an alternative penalty for the crime..."
The judge is given "the sound discretion" to decide to jail or not to jail, by determining, given "the peculiar circumstances of each case," whether a fine alone "would best serve the interests of justice" or not jailing the offender "would work violence on the social order" or would be "contrary to the imperative of justice."
The tenor of the circular leaves plenty of room for the judge to do calisthenics in and dance around.
Worse, for Ressa and Santos and other journalists, it sounds like the discretion is left almost totally to the trial judge. Because of the language of the circular, the appellate court might be reluctant to tamper with the RTC's judgment, at least on the matter of jailing or not jailing.
The grant of exemplary damages of P200,000 each against Ressa and Santos may tell the appellate court that the trial court believes the defendants must be punished. Which also boosts the signal of the trial judge's belief they should be jailed, not just fined.
In her ruling, RTC Judge Rainelda Estacio-Mantesa said the exemplary damages are "imposed by way of example or correction for public good." It is imposed "as a punishment for highly reproachable conduct," apparently referring to the alleged breach of journalism standards in the publication against Keng.