A GOVERNMENT official who understands the role of media in the function of governance will drag a publisher or journalist to court only when the publication clearly crosses the line of free press and free speech.

The public official risks being labeled anti-press and "onion-skinned," which the Supreme Court has admonished public officials not to be.

There are other reasons a lawsuit may no longer be needed. The public official has ample opportunity to correct the error, give his side, exercise his right of reply. The local government that a governor or mayor heads has vast resources for propaganda. If Governor Yap is a third as much as Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia in media savvy and energy, he'd have huge means for corrective response to any misstatement or falsehood in media.

So why then is Bohol Governor Arthur Yap suing over alleged criminal media attacks against him and his administration?

YAP'S TARGETS. Governor Yap filed early this month with the Makati City prosecutor’s office a complaint for inciting to sedition against three persons: Peter Dejaresco, dyRD manager and Bohol Chronicle associate editor; Dan Lim, former Tagbilaran City mayor and co-host of a radio program; and Emmanuel "Willy" Ramasola, a businessman and a Facebook user. Yap called the three his "staunch critics."

Yap complained, according to a story in "Bohol Tribune," that Dejaresco, Lim and Ramasola "acted as catalysts to incite anarchy," dyRD and Bohol Chronicle "castigated" the Yap administration with "baseless accusations and rumors" discussed on radio and in the paper.

The Tribune story said the Primer Report said Yap denounced "ill motives" of respondents:

[1] Dejaresco, who allegedly "conspired" with the other respondents "to mount a demolition job" against the governor, using his newspaper and radio station;

[2] Lim, who had filed with the ombudsman two requests for investigation against Yap despite the former mayor's alleged admission he had no evidence;

[3] Ramasola, who had posted allegedly malicious materials in Facebook against Lim since 2018 when he supported former Cabinet secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr.'s unsuccessful bid for governor.

Of the three respondents, only Dejaresco is a full-time journalist. Lim has been co-hosting a "political" radio program, while Ramasola is described in a news story as a "media influencer," using Facebook to publish his material.

HOW EACH SIDE LOOKS AT IT. The common description of the three respondents, through the complainant's lens, is that they're "staunch," fierce, persistent critics of the governor, who won't cease criticizing until they shut up or are locked up.

To the targets of the complaint, Governor Yap is anti-media and anti-press freedom and his lawsuits are aimed to harass those who criticize the administration. Tomas Abapo Jr., law school dean and former president of Integrated Bar of the Philippines Bohol chapter, was quoted by the Bohol Chronicle as supporting the criticism of harassment.

It is the court ultimately that decides whether the charge against media, be it libel or inciting to sedition, rests on solid evidence. And generally, courts support free press and free speech although often the vindication for journalists comes only in the higher courts.

The law, as phrased, easily gives basis for a complainant to sue. Actual smearing of honor is not required in libel; actual unrest is also not required in inciting to sedition. The operative word is "tend": "tend to cause dishonor" in libel; "tend to disturb or obstruct" or "tend to stir up the people" in inciting to sedition.

CRIMES COMPARED. The Bohol governor filed not the usual complaint for libel, a crime against honor, but a complaint for inciting to sedition, a crime against public order. Libel is what media workers are usually accused of; inciting to sedition is what activists and dissidents who have not yet gone to the hills are charged with.

Inciting to sedition is associated with fomenting unrest to change public officials or overthrow the government. Media -- at least the traditional outlets that are in it for the business and the public mission -- wouldn't seek to change leaders and governments, anyway not by openly urging and cajoling people to rise in arms. That would be stupid, as one Cebu-based Boholano journalist told me.

The inciting to sedition charge is deemed tougher to prove. It doesn't just require malice but also an "evil" purpose: the ultimate end of overthrowing the government.

Actually, the governor uses the charge of libel too. Earlier, Yap sued Ramasolo with cyber libel for his attacks against him online. (Aside, from the libel complaint a school had filed against the businessman.)

LIKE CHEERLEADERS. Basing the complaint on inciting to sedition under Art. 142 of the Revised Penal Code, Yap accuses the three Boholanos of "inciting people against the lawful authorities or to disturb the peace of the community, the safety and order of government."

The respondents are not accused of taking direct part in the sedition, which may or may not happen. They are accused of inciting others to commit sedition by means of "speeches... writings... cartoons, emblems, tending to the same end" or "uttering seditious words or speeches" or writing, publishing or circulating "scurrilous libels" against the government or any of the duly constituted authorities. Like cheerleaders spewing out libels that are not just defamatory but "scurrilous."

HARDER TO PROVE. A number of lawyers say inciting to sedition has "an evidentiary requirement that's tough to hurdle."

Yet the governor is using it. But then, his immediate purpose could be just to reduce the sniping from the three and not really to have them convicted.

With the election campaign already in progress, the complaint, particularly on the allegation of conspiracy, may not be as "ridiculous" as Governor Yap's critics see it. Still, he might not know the full price for that choice until the election is over.