FACT-checking and getting the side of the person who is the subject of an opinion piece are ways to avoid a lawsuit, according to a veteran journalist and blogger.

Raissa Robles said that opinion makers should make sure the facts they write in their column are correct to avoid being charged with libel.

“Libel is a defense of the rich and the powerful,” she said. “They file it to shut you up.”

Robles also encouraged mass communication students to express their opinions on issues in social networking sites.

She gave students an overview of the opinion-writing process yesterday morning during the 20th Cebu Press Freedom Week forum, “Reaching Out to Future Journalists.”

Sun.Star Cebu columnists Bong Wenceslao, Melanie Lim and Frank Malilong composed the panel.

The forum, which was on its eighth edition, was sponsored by Sun.Star Cebu and Smart Communications. It was attended by students from Cebu Normal University, University of the Philippines, University of San Carlos, University of the Visayas, Southwestern University, Cebu Institute of Technology-University, and Bendicto College.

In her lecture, Robles defined the news commentary as an “informed opinion based on facts.”

Personal opinion, she said, should not be written in a news report and newspapers should inform readers that an article is an opinion piece. But a reporter can interview a person who may articulate his or her views on a certain issue, she added.

She said columnists have the responsibility of getting the side of the person who is the object of their opinion. Columnists must also be careful in describing the person.

Robles said unverified “juicy news” can be written as blind items.

Propaganda

“Columnists usually write news commentaries because they are at home in writing their opinion,” she said. “Sometimes they leave out the facts or distort them. There is a thin wall between personal opinion and propaganda. That wall is the body of facts that the commentator present to sway you.”

Before writing an opinion, Robles said the writer must research and counter-check his or her facts. He or she should allot time to self-edit.

Validating the facts can save the writer from being sued, Robles said.

Libel does not apply to statements and speeches made during congressional proceedings, court trials, public hearings and press briefings.

Strategy

“Reporters are free to report what the officials say,” Robles said. “It is the officials who can be sued, not the press.”

She said there is no fool-proof strategy for a columnist to avoid legal suits because any aggrieved party can file a libel complaint. But a writer can avoid conviction if malice is not proven in court.

She cited the case of former first gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, who filed libel suits against journalists in 2006. One of the respondents was a columnist who described Arroyo as “gordo,” the Spanish word for fat.

“Libel is always in the eye of the person filing the lawsuit,” said Robles.