WHAT HAPPENED. Last Wednesday (October 5, 2022), former Cebu City councilor Prisca Niña Mabatid was released after surrendering and posting bail at the Negros Oriental Regional Trial Court. The arrest warrant was issued by Taguig City RTC Branch 271 five days earlier, on September 30.
The matter of venue drew interest: Cebu City-based Mabatid was sued for cyber-libel by entertainer-politician Richard Yap in Taguig City, which must be his actual residence, but she posted bail in Dumaguete City.
The complaint was filed on November 15, 2021, when the 2022 election campaign was heating up, in the race where both Mabatid and Yap were competing with Rachel Marguerite "Cutie" del Mar for the House seat vacated by the death of her father Representative Raul Del Mar. Cutie del Mar, who had served the city's north district from 2010 to 2013, handily beat the challengers.
The cyber-libel case is between election losers, mired in a litigation obviously produced during the campaign season. Here are seven takeaways from the not-your-ordinary-libel case:
 VENUE IN CYBER-LIBEL. The major take-away, for the benefit of mainstream journalists and social media users alike, is the question of venue.
In ordinary libel, a private complainant like Richard Yap may file his complaint in one of two places: (a) where he actually resides at the time of the commission of the offense, or (b) where the alleged defamatory article was printed and first published.
In cyber-libel however -- which Yap and most of those who sue for libel these days prefer because of the one-degree-higher penalty -- it's "impossible" to ascertain where the article was first published and where the article was first accessed. For that reason, the Supreme Court in Winona Bonifacio et al vs. RTC of Makati City (GR #184800, May 5, 2010) said that "if it would allow cyber-libel to be filed where the article is first accessed, the author of the article may be sued anywhere in the Philippines." Yap could say he accessed Mabatid's Facebook post in Aparri and would sue there.
Thus, the SC has "effectively limited" the venue to the place where the complainant actually resides at the time of the commission of the offense. In Yap's case though, in which he chose Taguig City as his actual residence when Mabatid allegedly libeled her, he in effect was also telling that Cebu City was not his actual residence when he ran for public office. But for election purposes, he picked Cebu as his actual residence when he ran for congressman in 2019 and 2022, which he both lost.
 HOW VENUE AFFECTS TRADIONAL MEDIA. The rule on venue on ordinary libel already oppresses mainstream journalists as the complainant has the option to use the site of trial that's as far away from the place of publication as can be. A congressman, say, in Mindanao would pick Quezon City where to file his complaint against a journalist whose news outlet is based in Cebu. QC is the location of his office. Worse, if he'd pick Dipolog City, his place of residence, where to sue.
And that's where venue is limited to, under the SC rule on cyber-libel: the actual residence of the complainant -- or maybe if he's a public official, the location of his office -- which can be hundreds of kilometers from the place of publication.
 POSTING BAIL. The accused, in this case former councilor Mabatid, could post bail with Taguig City RTC, where the case is pending, or, in the absence of its judge, with another branch of the same court within the province or city.
Mabatid surrendered -- and in effect was arrested -- in Dumaguete City, then posted bail with that city's RTC. She could've done so with any other available -- metropolitan, municipal trial or municipal circuit -- judge in that area or any other place of surrender/arrest. Mabatid could've picked Cebu for posting bail. Apparently, she was in Negros Oriental when she decided to surrender and go through the process of arrest.
 THE COMPLAINT; NO LIBEL LAW HOLIDAY? Yap's complaint dwelt on Mabatid's posts (a) about the TV celebrity cum politico "using government funds" for his feeding programs ("example, that I used government rice for my 'lugaw'") and (b) about his having a child that he "didn't support."
Those two issues against Yap were raised during the campaign. Apparently, the assistant city prosecutor who recommended for indictment of Mabatid -- and the city prosecutor who approved it -- didn't consider the election campaign as a pass for political rivals to hurl accusations against one another. They must think that libel laws don't take a holiday during the election season and protection on reputation continues even with the need for full discussion of issues among seekers of elective public office.
 QUESTION OF MALICE AMONG POLITICOS. The prosecutors, in finding "probable cause" of cyber-libel, seem to disregard the expected results of political debate, or the exchange of charges and counter-charges between rivals for public office. Mabatid and Yap were running for congressman, how the heck could the public know about their strengths and virtues if they couldn't raise sensitive, yet valid, issues?
How can Mabatid plead she had no ill-intent as she understandably would want to take down her rival in the race? There must have been malice in her heart and mind, as her rival Yap must have the same ill-will in his heart and mind. She may argue she was just airing valid issues and yet she cannot deny her passion to defeat Yap by publicly presenting accusations against him, which, the prosecutors now find, could be libelous.
 NOT IN THE CATEGORY OF JOURNALIST. Mabatid wouldn't be in the same category of a journalist who'd write about Yap -- his alleged use of government rice for a vote-getting promo of free "lugaw" or his alleged "unconcern" about the claim of a purported son -- and invoke public interest as motive.
How absence of malice may be used by an elective office-seeker accused of libel is interesting territory for the courts to probe and define. Whether Mabatid can enjoy the mantle of "privileged communication," which is granted to journalists under certain conditions, may provoke judicial inquiry.
 YAP'S RIGHT OF REPLY. Apparently, the prosecutors didn't consider that Yap had the chance to answer the posts made by Mabatid. Archived stories should tell the prosecutors that the entertainer-politician answered fire with fire. Each had a platform and audience to state his or her position. It wasn't a case of Mabatid thrashing Yap with his hands tied.
For example, on the October 2021 challenge of Mabatid for Yap to take a DNA test to prove he had no relation to the young man who claimed he was Richard's son, the TV celebrity shot it down with a stinging reply that Niña was not the mother and her motive for nagging about the issue was questionable. The case was in court, Yap said, let the court decide.
Both Mabattid and Yap were in the middle of a political campaign, where sparks, even explosions, were inevitable.
EXPLAINER: Richard Yap-vs-Niña Mabatid case is not your ordinary cyber-libel. Venue is major takeaway: Ex-city councilor sued in Taguig by entertainer-politician when offense was committed in Cebu. And alleged defamatory posts were done during political campaign.
Photos from Facebook pages of Richard Yap and Niña Mabatid
October 10, 2022
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