POSTSCRIPT / February 23, 2014 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Opinion Columnist

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For sensitive media: No libel, no penalty!

CHILLING EFFECT?: Amid the objections of social media to the Supreme Court’s upholding the libel provision of RA 10175, also known as Cybercrime Prevention Act, let me voice out a few possibly discordant thoughts on the regulation of the press.

As a rule, libel or the published malicious defamation of persons must be discouraged and penalized whether committed in print, broadcast or whatever media.

This scarred journalist does not feel the so-called “chilling effect” said to have descended on Philippine media with the Supreme Court’s upholding the constitutionality of RA 10175‘s libel provisions pertaining to social media.

It seems to me that the remedy for anyone who presumes to call himself a journalist but will not take responsibility for his libelous statements is for him not to libel anyone. No libel, no penalty.

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SPECIAL TREATMENT?: Pardon me, but we old fogies in the mass media have survived and continued to perform our adversarial functions vis-a-vis the government and the Establishment under the restrictive confines of the Revised Penal Code.

I see no good reason why those in the so-called social media– a sector that has emerged with the flourishing of the Internet — should now demand exemption from the same laws that govern the mainstream press.

We cannot have one penal code for the traditional press and another for social or whatever-else media. The new law and the Supreme Court decision did not change the elements of libel. They just clarified its application to cover new emerging forms.

Until and unless libel laws pertaining to the mass media are repealed or amended, they should apply with the same force and effect on other forms of media, whatever tag they wear.

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DECRIMINALIZATION: Some commentators say libel should be removed from the penal code and decriminalized, meaning it should cease to be classified as a criminal offense. Good point, thank you.

Let us rush passage of that welcome amendment. But until that is done, the existing code should apply simultaneously and evenly on social and all media.

(“Press” and “media” are used here as generic terms that refer not only to print media but to all forms of media. “Libel” is used as defined in the Revised Penal Code.)

If a journalist stays long enough in the racket, he will discover that there are many ways of saying the same things, or advocating the same causes, without resorting to libel — and still achieve practically the same desired effects.

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LAW RELAXED: In time, those new in the game will learn the tricks and start to appreciate what those who had trodden the same bumpy path before them have done to clear the way.

For instance, it used to be that a complainant could file a libel suit anywhere in the archipelago where somebody had allegedly read the story. Sometimes the respondent vanished on his way to a hearing in a faraway locale. Not any more, as the venue has been strictly defined because of lobbying by press groups.

And do you know why a journalist cannot be forced by a judge or any authority to identify his source? That was because a bunch of courageous and conscientious newspapermen preferred to stay in jail than betray their source. The law was eased decades ago because of their objections.

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BEAUTY OF BORDERS: But does not the Cybercrime Act penalizing libel restrict the full enjoyment of the freedom of the press enshrined in the Constitution?

Maybe RA 10175 does, as the penal code does. But in a well-ordered society there must be rules. Necessarily there cannot be wanton freedom to write, say or let loose in the public domain anything that crosses one’s mind.

One will have to pause and consider his neighbors, especially if they are in the majority.

This point has been discussed to death, we will not kick it around any further – except to say that the beauty of the field of freedom is enhanced by the fence built by the community around it.

One solution to the restriction of press freedom occasioned by the Cybercrime Act is not to commit libel. A good rule is: Do not libel anyone, so the courts will not whack you with the law.

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UNENDING WAR: Even during the repressive Marcosian martial rule when the media woke up one September morning with their presses padlocked by state troops, the press resolutely kept testing and pushing the borders set by the dictator.

It was a cat and mouse game, where the media kept the state’s censors at bay or endlessly running after them – eventually forcing a tired Malacañang to loosen up, in calculated stages, from full censorship to self-regulation.

This relentless war for press freedom is being mentioned to stress the point that the fight does not end with roundly criticizing the Supreme Court decision on cyber libel.

The SC ruling merely addressed the problems ushered in by new technology and new knowledge. The legislature and the judiciary must keep up with – or, better, keep ahead of — the media industry.

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FOLLOWUP MOVES: Among the next moves are the repeal or amendment of RA 10175, followed by the decriminalizing of libel and crafting other enlightened legislation on the press.

In all these, it is best for lawmakers to deepen and widen their consultation to include not only theoretical practitioners or those who have not sufficiently gotten their feet wet in the swirling waters of mass media.

It has been noticed, for instance, that some congressional bodies consult theoreticians — not the working press and the media owners. Codes of conduct are enforced better if imposed from the top, the media owners, down to the editors and ultimately to the real newspapermen on the ground.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 23, 2014)

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