Over the past few days, I have been queried by bloggers about the possibility of facing a criminal case for libel for something they post online. It seems their anxiety, in part, has been fueled by the reported filing of a libel suit by Mayor Nasser Pangandaman, Jr. against Bambee De la Paz before the Lanao del Sur Prosecutorâ€™s Office in Marawi City. It was Bambee’s blog which brought public attention to the mauling incident at the Valley Golf Club, for which Mayor Pangandaman and his companions, including his father DAR Secretary Nasser Pangandaman, Sr., are allegedly responsible.
The Unlawyer has also written a lucid overview on the nature of libel as it relates to the Pangandaman-De la Paz feud. Likewise, the Cebu Daily News previously carried a comprehensive two-part article on libel, it nature, remedies and venue by Judge Gabriel T. Ingles, which can be accessed here and here.
The legal aspects of libel having been covered extensively elsewhere, I need not repeat them here. But to address the question posed by some bloggers on whether there is possibility that they can be sued for libel for something posted online, the answer is yes. There is always the chance that they might publish something (blogging is a form of electronic publication) which will offend some person or institution for which they will be hailed to court.
Will such a complaint prosper ? It depends on the circumstances and whether the elements of libel, i.e (a) it must be defamatory; (b) it must be malicious; (c) it must be given publicity; and (d) the victim must be identifiable, can be duly shown, even prima facie.
As regards the Pangandaman complaint against Bambee, De la Paz lawyer Archie Fortun (he of the bizarre coup plot involving Bono Adaza) has been quoted as saying: “Itâ€™s not a big deal. Itâ€™s not an unexpected move by the Pangandamans because they have been threatening to file such case two days after the mauling incident.” He also believes that “after weighing the evidence, the court would eventually dismiss the libel charges“.
Is Fortun implying that the City Prosecutor’s Office of Marawi City is sure to find a prima facie case against Bambee and that there’s little chance of the case being thrown out at the prosecutor’s level ? He appears to be hinting that a hometown decision is in the offing, at least as far as the filing of a criminal information for libel is concerned. And that it would be now up to the Regional Trial Court to resolve the issue, which he believes will be in Bambee’s favor. But how can he be sure that the RTC will likewise not appreciate the case from the Pangandamans’ point of view ? Following his line of reasoning, a hometown decision might also be likely at the trial court level.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter. The libel case, as Fortun himself indicates, is meant as leverage against Bambee and her family in ongoing negotiations for an amicable settlement. This is just one more chip which the Pangandamans will bring to the table later on.
Even so, the libel complaint is something not to be taken lightly, even assuming that Bambee need not be present herself and can be represented by counsel. A consideration is the huge hassle of litigating in Marawi City for a lawyer based in Manila. One has to fly to Iligan City first, then drive up to Marawi. From anecdotes I’ve heard over the years, a lot of unpleasant things can happen while traveling between the two cities. Unless the De la Paz family can hire a local attorney, although I doubt if anyone in Marawi will be willing to take up the cudgels for the respondent.
Another is the possibility that if the libel case is filed in court, there might be an alias warrant of arrest issued for Bambee, since she will most likely not be around during the scheduled arraignment to personally enter her plea (guilty or not guilty) as she is studying in the U.S. Once she returns, however, the warrant of arrest can be served against her and she will have to appear before the court and post bail. This is a tricky matter, since for Bambee going to Marawi will be like entering the lion’s den.
But there are remedies available to the respondent. The strategy for the defense will most likely involve filing a petition for review of the local prosecutor’s resolution with the Department of Justice and moving for the suspension of arraignment. Should the case still proceed, a motion to quash (extinguish) the complaint may be filed before the court. This may delay the proceedings long enough for the parties to settle. Which, from all indications, is where this entire affair is headed, eventually.
As far as I’m aware, this is the first libel case involving blogging filed in the Philippines. From the perspective of jurisprudence, it would be nice to have a definitive Supreme Court ruling on
libel on the internet. But it looks as if it will not get that far.
Here’s an interesting article on defamation on the internet and the risks of getting sued in distant locations.