Libel: When words could hurt Government Officials

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Times of calamity, unrest, and pandemic truly test the people’s patience with their elective officials most especially. A scroll on your Facebook page illustrates this point emphatically: Governor vs doctors and doctors vs Governor on ways to prevent Covid-19, the Mayor and the missing chickens (that was quite funny), the participation of businessmen in political and public management and service, among many issues.

Will a pent up public, whose only recourse pending the next elections is the keyboard, get into trouble for typing and posting scathing or critical words against their government officials under existing laws?

Let’s talk LIBEL, but against government officials.

First, we have to establish what the legal definition of libel is, according to the Revised Penal Code:

“ARTICLE 353. Definition of Libel. — A libel is a public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status, or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”

Loosely stated, your post or statement is libelous (and therefore the act is punishable) if it causes a stain or dishonor on the person you refer to dead or alive. Every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious, even if it be true, if no good intention and justifiable motive for making it is shown, except in the following cases:

  1. A private communication made by any person to another in the performance of any legal, moral or social duty; and
  2. A fair and true report, made in good faith, without any comments or remarks, of any judicial, legislative or other official proceedings which are not of confidential nature, or of any statement, report or speech delivered in said proceedings, or of any other act performed by public officers in the exercise of their functions.

Okay. Now let’s say that you are imputing something against a public official on a Facebook Article via a comment. Let’s say you posted something in the likes of “WALANG KWENTA NAMAN SI GOV. X, WALA NAMAN ALAM YAN SA MEDISINA, TONTA!” in response to how said Gov. X implemented rules in relation to a pandemic. Will Gov. X have any case for libel against the Facebook poster?

The Supreme Court of the Philippines in the case of US vs Bustos [1] held in 1918 states:

“The interest of society and the maintenance of good government demand a full discussion of public affairs. Complete liberty to comment on the conduct of public men is a scalpel in the case of free speech. The sharp incision of its probe relieves the abscesses of officialdom. Men in public life may suffer under a hostile and an unjust accusation; the wound can be assuaged with the balm of a clear conscience. A public officer must not be too thin-skinned with reference to comment upon his official acts. Only thus can the intelligence and dignity of the individual be exalted. Of course, criticism does not authorize defamation. Nevertheless, as the individual is less than the State, so must expected criticism be born for the common good. Rising superior to any official, or set of officials, to the Chief Executive, to the Legislature, to the Judiciary — to any or all the agencies of Government — public opinion should be the constant source of liberty and democracy.

See the well considered cases of Wason v. Walter, 4 L.R. 4 Q. B., 73; Seymour v. Butterworth, 3 F. & F., 372; The Queen v. Sir R. Garden, 5 Q. B. D., 1.

The guaranties of a free speech and a free press include the right to criticize judicial conduct. The administration of the law is a matter of vital public concern. Whether the law is wisely or badly enforced is, therefore, a fit subject for proper comment. If the people cannot criticize a justice of the peace or a judge the same as any other public officer, public opinion will be effectively muzzled. Attempted terrorization of public opinion on the part of the judiciary would be tyranny of the basest sort. The sword of Damocles in the hands of a judge does not hang suspended over the individual who dares to assert his prerogative as a citizen and to stand up bravely before any official. On the contrary, it is a duty which every one owes to society or to the State to assist in the investigation of any alleged misconduct. It is further the duty of all know of any official dereliction on the part of a magistrate or the wrongful act of any public officer to bring the facts to the notice of those whose duty it is to inquire into and punish them. In the words of Mr. Justice Gayner, who contributed so largely to the law of libel. “The people are not obliged to speak of the conduct of their officials in whispers or with bated breath in a free government, but only in a despotism.

Howarth v. Barlow [1906], 113 App. Div., N. Y., 510.

But there is also a fairly recent case of People of the Philippines vs. De Leon [2] in 2016 that also involves scathing remarks against a public officer where the Supreme Court stated:

“One of man’s most prized possessions is his integrity. There lies a thin line between criticism and outright defamation. When one makes commentaries about the other’s performance of official duties, the criticism is considered constructive, then aimed for the betterment of his or her service to the public. It is thus, a continuing duty on the part of the public officer to make room for improvement on the basis of this constructive criticism in as much as it is imperative on the part of the general public to make the necessary commentaries should they see any lapses on the part of the public officer. In this case, however, the criticism was more destructive than constructive and, worse, it was directed towards the personal relations of the parties.

In this case, a police officer was called “walanghiya,” “mayabang” and “mangongotong” in public, which the court found to have unquestionably constituted grave oral defamation. According to the Court, these words seriously attacked the police officer’s character. The term “mangongotong” actually imputed a crime that was dishonorable to him as a police authority. There having been no provocation on the part of the officer and that the utterances complained of were not made in the heat of unrestrained anger or obfuscation, the court held the accused guilty for the crime of grave oral defamation (libel on paper, oral defamation if done orally/spoken except for radio and tv broadcasts, which still falls under libel).

The two cases above do not go contrary. I think it in fact complements each other, since it states the general rule and instances where there are exceptions.

Therefore, following the recent pronouncements on libel made against public officials, Facebook Poster may NOT be held criminally liable for libel if a Facebook poster could prove that the post was in connection with Gov X’s exercise of public duties.

Gov. X could always argue that these are personal attacks and not made in connection with public duties, and must thus be declared libelous by the proper courts. On the other hand, the poster could always argue that yes, criticism does not authorize defamation, nevertheless, as the individual is less than the State, so must expect criticism to be born for the common good.

  1. G.R. No. L-12592. March 8, 1918
  2. G.R. No. 212623, January 11, 2016 – ENRIQUE G. DE LEON, Petitioner, v. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES AND SPO3 PEDRITO L. LEONARDO

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